American basketball star Brittney Griner landed in Texas on Friday morning, footage showed, after she was released from a Russian prison in a high-profile exchange for a notorious arms dealer on Thursday.
Griner, 32, who was arrested in Russia in February on drug charges, was expected to be transferred to a nearby military facility for medical checks.
The WNBA star was swapped for ‘Merchant of Death’ Viktor Bout, 55 – who was serving a 25-year sentence in a US prison – ending what President Joe Biden called months of ‘hell’ for her and her wife.
The swap deal comes against a backdrop of soaring tensions over Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, and has been criticised by Republicans for handing the notorious arms dealer back to Moscow.
American basketball star Brittney Griner landed in the US state of Texas on Friday morning (pictured), footage broadcast on CNN and Fox News showed, after she was released from a Russian prison in exchange for a notorious arms dealer
Griner was seen getting off a plane that landed Friday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, after flying from the UAE where the prisoner trade took place.
The deal secured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad and achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden.
However, the U.S. failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years – leading to criticism of Biden from his opponents.
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, Baylor University All-American and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star.
Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, injected racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees in Russia.
The athlete, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at an airport there in February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be ‘wrongfully detained’ – a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.
Griner, 32, who was arrested in Russia in February on drug charges, was expected to be transferred to a nearby military facility for medical checks, US media reported. Pictured: The WNBA star is seen climbing down from a plane in Texas on Friday morning
Pictured: A smiling Griner is seen arriving at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas on Friday
Pictured: The plane carrying Griner is seen on the tarmac at the San Antonio airport
Pictured: Brittney Griner is seen on a plane on her way home, where she is told that she will be going back to the US. Asked what her mood was, she said: ‘Happy’
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday’s swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi and Bout had been flown home.
Biden spoke by phone with Griner. U.S. officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counseling.
In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the U.S. in 2010.
Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.
Following Griner’s arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, she pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.
She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent and she accidentally packed them. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.
On Thursday, the White House released footage of the emotional moment President Biden told Griner’s wife Cherelle that the WNBA star was finally coming home, before the pair hugged in the Oval Office.
President Biden announced Griner’s release early Thursday in an address to the nation at the White House. ‘She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,’ he said. He said he had spoken to her and she was in ‘good spirits’ after suffering ‘needless trauma’ at the hands of the Russian state.
This is the emotional moment Joe Biden (right) told Brittney Griner’s wife Cherelle (left) that the WNBA star is finally coming home, before the pair hugged in the Oval Office
In the heartwarming footage released by Biden’s staff, the President is seen holding Cherelle Griner’s by the arms, telling her that her wife is on the way.
‘She’s on the ground,’ Biden is heard telling Cherelle, presumably referencing her landing in the UAE for the prisoner swap. ‘Stop it,’ Cherelle replies in disbelief.
‘Yep, she’s on the ground,’ the President says again. The footage then cuts to show Cherelle walking behind the Resolute Desk, saying today is a ‘great day’.
‘It’s just such a good day!’ she says again sitting in a leather-bound chair with Biden on one side, and Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the other. All are shown beaming.
‘Oh my god,’ Cherelle, seen in a red dress, says while laughing with joy.
Press pictures from the office also showed Cherelle being embraced by First Lady Jill Biden, who posted the pictures to her Twitter account. ‘Brittney is coming home,’ the First Lady wrote, along with a heart emoji.
Biden said ‘this is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. It took painstaking and intense negotiations’ to orchestrate the prisoner swap.
Pictured: Merchant of Death Victor Bout is seen smiling during the prisoner swap in the UAE. Griner is shown in red, left, as she is handed over to US officials
War criminal Viktor Bout (right) smiled as he made his way towards the jet waiting for him to be taken back to Russian soil for the first time in years
In footage released by Russian state media, Griner, shorn of her distinctive dreadlocks, and a relaxed and animated Bout could be seen crossing paths on the airport tarmac and heading towards the planes that would take them home.
Earlier, Griner was seen in footage on a plane after being freed, where she is told that she will be going back to the US. Asked what her mood was, she said: ‘Happy.’
However, the swap has been criticised. Many see Bout’s release as a gift to Putin and his war effort in Ukraine, consider it a damning indictment on Biden’s diplomatic track record, and are appalled by the involvement of Saudi Arabia in negotiating.
The White House on Thursday denied that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved, but also thanked the UAE for the ‘use of their territory’.
At the time of her arrest, Griner had been playing for a professional team in Russia, as a number of WNBA players do in the off-season.
She pleaded guilty to the charges against her, but said she did not intend to break the law or use the banned substance in Russia.
Griner testified that she had permission from a US doctor to use medicinal cannabis to relieve pain from her many injuries.
The use of medical marijuana is not allowed in Russia.
The Russian foreign ministry said it had been negotiating with Washington to secure Bout’s release ‘for a long time’ and that initially the United States had ‘refused dialogue’ on including him in any swap.
‘Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot,’ it said. ‘The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland.’
The 2005 film ‘Lord of War’ starring Nicolas Cage was based in part on Bout’s arms trafficking exploits and he has been the subject of several books and TV shows.
Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told Bout in a video message that he was aware that the arms dealer had been subjected to ‘powerful physical and moral pressure’ while in prison, Russian news agency TASS reported.
‘And you endured it with dignity,’ the ambassador added, saying Moscow was ‘genuinely delighted by the fact that Russia’s efforts for your release have eventually succeeded.’
Asked about Bout’s release, a senior US defense official said ‘there is a concern that he would return to doing the same kind of work that he’s done in the past.’