WASHINGTON — Basketball star Brittney Griner is “safe” and headed home to the United States after being freed from a Russian prison ordeal in a swap for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, the two countries announced on Thursday.
US President Joe Biden delivered an early-morning address to the nation to announce the breakthrough, and said he had spoken to Griner just “moments ago.”
“She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden said, adding that she should be back in the United States within 24 hours.
The Olympic legend and LGBT trailblazer, who was being held in a remote penal colony, was arrested at a Moscow airport in February and handed nine years in prison in August for possessing vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil.
Biden said she would need time to recover from “needless trauma” after time spent in Russia’s IK-2 penal colony, a facility in the town of Yavas in the central region of Mordovia.
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Reporting that Griner was in “good spirits,” Biden said she deserved “space, privacy and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained.”
Cherelle Griner (L), wife of Olympian and WNBA player Brittney Griner, speaks after US.President Joe Biden announced her release from Russian custody, at the White House on December 8, 2022 in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)
Biden was flanked by Griner’s wife Cherelle Griner as well as Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions,” Cherelle Griner said, describing the ordeal of her wife’s imprisonment as “one of the darkest moments of my life.”
‘Family is whole’
Moscow confirmed it had exchanged Griner for Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence in the United States.
“On December 8, 2022, at the Abu Dhabi airport, the exchange of Russian citizen Viktor Bout for US citizen Brittney Griner… was successfully completed,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
According to Biden, the United Arab Emirates facilitated Griner’s release. She transited through the country en route back to the United States, where she was expected within 24 hours.
Despite the heightened mood, Biden also conceded that the United States had not yet succeeded in freeing Paul Whelan, a retired US Marine arrested in December 2018 and accused of spying.
Cherelle Griner acknowledged his fate, saying: “Today my family is whole, but as you all are aware there’s so many other families who are not whole.”
Paul Whelan, a former US marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia since December 2018, stands inside a defendants’ cage as he waits to hear his verdict in Moscow on June 15, 2020. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)
When Griner was arrested, the two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist and Women’s NBA champion had been in Russia to play for the professional Yekaterinburg team, during her off-season from the Phoenix Mercury.
She pleaded guilty to the charges, but said she had not intended to break the law or use the banned substance in Russia.
Griner had testified that she had permission from a US doctor to use medicinal cannabis to relieve pain from her many injuries, and had never failed a drug test.
The use of medical marijuana is not allowed in Russia.
Moscow said it had been negotiating with Washington to secure Bout’s release “for a long time” and that initially the US had “refused dialogue” on including him in any swap.
“Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot. The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland,” the defense ministry said.
Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout (center) is escorted by US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers after arriving in New York, November 16, 2010. (Courtesy of DEA)
Bout was sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in a US jail after he was accused of arming rebels in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts.