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WNBA star Brittney Griner was freed from Russian captivity Thursday in a prisoner exchange for a notorious Russian arms dealer, President Joe Biden announced.
Griner, who was arrested in February at a Moscow airport after being caught with marijuana vaping materials, was sentenced in August to nine years in prison. The 6-foot, 9-inch athlete plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, and had flown to Russia to finish her season for UMMC Ekaterinburg when she was arrested.
“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner,” Biden tweeted early Thursday from the White House, where he was joined by Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner. “She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home, after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances. Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along. This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release.”
U.S. diplomats had been scrambling to win her release, but the efforts were complicated by Russia’s international isolation as a result of its invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. agreed to the swap for arms dealer Viktor Bout, an international criminal known as the “Merchant of Death.”
Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner.
She is safe.
She is on a plane.
She is on her way home. pic.twitter.com/FmHgfzrcDT
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 8, 2022
The U.S. had hoped to win the release of Paul Whelan, a Michigan man and former Marine jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that the U.S. government said are baseless. But the deal set to be announced on Thursday was a one-for-one, sources said.
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said in a statement that his family is “glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home,” but said the family remains heartbroken that Paul Whelan remains imprisoned.
“Despite the possibility that there might be an exchange without Paul, our family is still devastated,” David Whelan said. “I can’t even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns. Paul has worked so hard to survive nearly 4 years of this injustice. His hopes had soared with the knowledge that the US government was taking concrete steps for once towards his release. He’d been worrying about where he’d live when he got back to the U.S.”
Cherelle Griner said she will continue to press for Whelan’s release.
“Today my family is whole,” she said. “But as you all are aware, there are so many other families that are not whole,” she said, adding that she’ll “remain committed” to Whelan’s cause.
Last month, Griner was transferred to an infamous Russian penal colony to serve out her sentence.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” Griner said at an August hearing before her sentencing. “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.”
Griner was arrested February 17 after landing in Moscow to begin play for a Russian team. WNBA players can make far bigger salaries playing in Europe and Asia during the league’s off-season than they can earn in the United States, where interest in women’s basketball is limited.
Griner, who was a three-time All-American at Baylor University, has starred for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury as well as UMMC Ekaterinburg, a team based in Yekaterinburg, Russia, since 2015. The team competes in the Russian Premier League and FIBA Europe’s EuroLeague. Griner helped the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team win gold medals at the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympic Games.
Bout, a Russian national with ties to President Vladimir Putin, was arrested on terrorism charges in 2008 by Thai police working with U.S. authorities and Interpol. He was extradited to the U.S. in 2010 and later convicted in Manhattan federal court of smuggling arms including anti-aircraft missiles to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for use against U.S. forces. He was serving a minimum of 25 years in prison at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois.