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WNBA star Brittney Griner released in swap with Russia for arms dealer Viktor Bout

Dec. 8, 2022 Updated Thu., Dec. 8, 2022 at 9:41 p.m.

Cherelle Griner, spouse of U.S. women’s basketball player Brittney Griner, listens as President Joe Biden speaks about the release of Brittney Griner in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.  (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
Cherelle Griner, spouse of U.S. women’s basketball player Brittney Griner, listens as President Joe Biden speaks about the release of Brittney Griner in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
By Mary Ilyushina, John Hudson, Robyn Dixon, Ellen Francis and Missy Ryan Washington Post

WNBA star Brittney Griner has been released from Russian detention and is on her way back to the United States, President Biden announced Thursday.

Shortly after speaking at the White House, in response to a shouted question from reporters, President Biden said Brittney Griner will be on U.S. soil “within 24 hours.” He thanked the United Arab Emirates, where Griner was taken immediately after leaving Russia.

Moscow released the athlete in a swap for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to two senior administration officials and a separate statement from Russia’s Foreign Ministry. Biden approved the release of Bout, commuting his 25-year prison sentence, one of the U.S. officials said.

Griner had been in Russian custody since her arrest at an airport near Moscow in February, when she was accused of entering the country with illegal vape cartridges containing less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. Her lawyers said it was prescribed as part of treatment for chronic pain and other conditions. In early November, following a failed appeal attempt, Russian authorities transferred her to a penal colony.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted Thursday morning that Griner was returning from her “wrongful detention” but added that the Biden administration was also committed to bringing back Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor in Russia under sham espionage charges from 2020, who has been in custody since 2018.

U.S. officials said that after months of pushing for the release of both Whelan and Griner, they hit a wall and lost hope of securing the larger deal. “It became clear in recent weeks that the choice was bringing Brittney Griner home right now, or bringing no one home right now,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive trade. “We celebrate one coming home, and we keep working to bring … Paul Whelan home, too.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday that “the procedure for the exchange of Russian citizen Viktor Bout for United States citizen Brittney Griner … was successfully completed at Abu Dhabi airport.”

It added that Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence in the United States on arms-smuggling charges, was on his way back to his homeland.

The White House has previously shown its willingness to authorize prisoner trades to secure freedom for Americans held overseas, including in September, when the administration exchanged an Afghan imprisoned on drug-trafficking charges for an American held captive by the Taliban.

The exchange for the notorious Bout is a sign that one of the few remaining diplomatic back channels between Washington and Moscow can still produce results, despite the crisis in relations between the United States and Russia over President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and Washington’s supplies of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, which have enabled Kyiv to resist Russian aggression.

But Moscow drove a hard bargain, dashing Washington’s efforts to also free Whelan.

Amid the strained relations, Moscow postponed scheduled talks under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty for “political reasons” last week, calling into question the future of the sole remaining strategic nuclear arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow. Russian officials said the decision was linked to Washington’s weapons and arms supplies to Kyiv.

Biden and Putin agreed on the back channel on the exchange of prisoners when they met in Geneva in July 2021.

Moscow’s ombudswoman, Tatiana Moskalkova, said Thursday that Griner and Bout were both pardoned as part of the exchange.

“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time,” Biden said from the White House Thursday morning. “We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstaking and intense negotiations.”

Biden said that he has spoken to Griner and that she is “in good spirits, relieved to finally be heading home.” He asked for others to give her space and privacy to recover from the ordeal, which he said she handled “with characteristic grit and incredible dignity.”

“Brittney is an incomparable athlete, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for Team USA,” Biden said.

Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner, expressed “sincere gratitude” to Biden and other administration officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris and national security adviser Jack Sullivan, as she spoke at the White House after Biden announced the release from Russia of the WNBA star.

Cherelle Griner said that while Thursday is a day of celebration for her, she and Brittney Griner would like to see the return of other detained Americans.

“B.G. is not here to say this, but I will gladly speak on her behalf and say that B.G. and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul (Whelan), whose family is in our hearts today. … We do understand that there are still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing tremendously their loved ones.”

Biden took a moment Thursday to emphasize his administration has not forgotten about Whelan.

“We never forgot about Brittney. We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelen, who’s been unjustly detained in Russia for years,” Biden said in remarks at the White House. “This was not a choice of which American to bring home. … Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”

Biden noted that the United States was able to bring home Trevor Reed, another former Marine who had been detained in Russia, when it had a chance earlier this year. The president said administration officials remain in close touch with Whelan’s family, and he vowed to keep negotiating in good faith for Whelan’s release.

“My thoughts and prayers are with them today. They have to have such mixed emotions today,” Biden said. “I urge Russia to do the same to ensure that Paul’s health and humane treatment are maintained until we can be able to bring him home. I don’t want any American to sit wrongfully detained one extra day if we can bring that person home.”

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