Brittney Griner has been released from a Russian penal colony after the Biden White House was able to reach a deal with the Kremlin on a prisoner swap, according to reports.
She’s on a plane back to the United States as of Thursday morning, the White House publicly confirmed. President Joe Biden said she would be back in 24 hours.
Griner, the WNBA star imprisoned on marijuana-related drug charges in Russia, will be returned to the US in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The negotiations were reportedly mediated by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the United Arab Emirates’ President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, according to Arab News.
Politico reported that the swap happened at Abu Dhabi airport, and that Griner and Bout had to walked past each other to reach their respective parties on the airport tarmac.
The 32-year-old Griner was facing nine years in a Russian penal colony, where she was expected to toil in sweatshop conditions while sewing for 12 hours or more per day.
Addressing the nation from the White House on Thursday morning, the president said Griner was ‘in good spirits’ while returning home after undergoing ‘intolerable’ circumstances in Russian custody.
‘Brittney is an incomparable athlete, a two time Olympic gold medalist for Team USA. She endured mistreatment at a show trial in Russia with characteristic grit and incredible dignity. She represents the best America – the best about America,’ Biden said.
Biden spoke with Griner on the phone Thursday, along with her wife Cherelle, who was in the Oval Office for the occasion.
Biden’s authorization to release a Russian felon once nicknamed ‘the Merchant of Death’ underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
The one-for-one swap was a surprise given that U.S. officials had for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless.
As Biden celebrated the release, updates include:
- Paul Whelan’s family said Biden ‘made the right decision’ to bring Griner home ‘rather than waiting’ for a deal ‘that wasn’t going to happen’
- Griner’s wife Cherelle said the basketball player’s detention were ‘the darkest moments of my life’
- Republican lawmakers are criticizing Biden for prioritizing ‘celebrity’ Griner over private citizens like Whelan
- Marc Fogel, an American teacher held in Russia on marijuana-related charges, is still being detained
- Biden addressed concerns about Americans still detained, stressing during his speech: ‘This was not a choice of which American to bring home’
President Joe Biden addressed the nation from the White House on Thursday morning to discuss Brittney Griner’s release as well as the conditions of Americans still detained abroad.
Cherelle Griner, wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner and First Lady Jill Biden embrace after news of the basketball player’s release from Russia
Cherelle thanked the Biden administration for ending what she called ‘the darkest moments of my life’
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) toasts with Russian soldiers after awarding them with the Gold Star medal on the eve of the ‘Heroes of the Fatherland Day’ at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 8, 2022, the day the US announced it was returning arms dealer Viktor Bout
Biden made clear that the U.S. was still working to bring Whelan home while also celebrating Griner’s release, while surrounded by the basketball player’s wife, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
‘This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release,’ the president said.
‘It took painstaking and intense negotiations, and I want to thank all the hard working public servants across my administration who work tirelessly to secure her release.’
Whelan’s family, meanwhile, said shortly before Biden spoke that they are ‘glad’ for Griner’s freedom but that his continued detention is a ‘catastrophe.’
Who is Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, dubbed ‘The Merchant of Death’?
Viktor Bout was dubbed the ‘Merchant of Death’ because of his rise to the top of international arms trafficking.
Born in Tajikistan, he is a former Soviet military officer who spent time in Mozambique during its civil war, going on to work for the KGB in Angola.
He turned to the arms trade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Attorney General Eric Holder called Bout ‘one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers’.
Bout has armed human rights abusers in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to Amnesty International.
Conflicts linked to Bout include the First Liberian Civil War, the Angolan Civil War, the Yugoslav Wars, the 2006 Lebanon War, the Second Libyan Civil War and the Second Congo War.
The New York Times alleged that Bout was linked to arms shipments to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Between 1992 and 1998, it has been reported he helped strip out $32 billion worth of Ukrainian weaponry after it broke with the Soviet Union.
In an interview with the Times, he said he had been known to fly African heads of state in and out of countries.
Bout was close friends with Mobutu Sese Seko, the Congolese dictator.
As well as an arms trafficker, he was a keen photographer and wildlife enthusiast, often spending time with Pygmy tribes in the African jungles.
‘What I really want to do now is to take one of my helicopters to the Russian Arctic north and make wildlife films for National Geographic and the Discovery channel,’ he told the Times.
He began his business transporting South African gladiolas.
Serving his sentence in the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, and has five years left in prison.
Indirectly addressing their concern, the president said from the podium: ‘This was not a choice of which American to bring home.’
‘We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years,’ Biden said. ‘Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s.’
‘And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.’
Biden said the White House remains ‘in close touch’ with Whelan’s family and commiserated with their ‘mixed emotions’ over Griner’s homecoming.
‘We’ll keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release – I guarantee that. I say that to the family. I guarantee you,’ the president said.
‘I urge Russia to do the same, to ensure the Paul’s health and humane treatment are maintained until we can bring him home. I don’t want any Americans to ship wrongfully detained and one extra day if we can bring that person home.’
The president made no mention of American Marc Fogel of Oklahoma, a teacher who is also detained in Russia on marijuana-related charges.
Whelan’s family said on Thursday just before Biden’s speech began: ‘I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home. As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays.’
‘There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home. The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and it make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,’ the statement continued.
They confirmed that administration officials told them ‘in advance’ about Griner’s release and Whelan’s continued detention.
‘That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul.’
Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Bill Keating lauded the swap but reiterated the need to bring Whelan home.
‘While we are very happy that Brittany[sp] Griner is returning home, we cannot forget we still have Americans unlawfully detained in Russia – specifically Paul Whelan. I have been in touch with his family, and they and Paul deserve all of our country’s efforts to bring him home,’ Keating wrote on Twitter.
Minutes after Biden’s remarks on Thursday, however, Republican lawmakers heckled the prisoner swap.
‘So a basketball star is released, we can celebrate, but what about Paul Whelan? An American unjustly detained for years,’ Illinois GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger said.
‘May not be high profile but he is innocent. This is a dangerous road.’
Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida stated: ‘Where is U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly held by Russia for far longer? Celebrities over veterans?’
Texas GOP Rep. Mayra Flores also noted Whelan’s continued detention but stopped short of criticizing the president.
‘Brittney Griner being released in exchange for a convicted arms dealer. What about Retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan?’ Flores said.
In a statement celebrating Griner’s release, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi added, ‘Congress stand firmly with the Administration as they continue working to secure the release of Paul Whelan and other Americans unjustly detained in Russia.’
‘Congress and the Country are overjoyed to learn that, thanks to the committed and focused leadership of President Biden, Brittney Griner is finally free,’ Pelosi said.
‘For nearly ten long months, Brittney Griner suffered unthinkable trauma as she was wrongfully imprisoned by the Russian government. Putin’s cruelty against Brittney – and his monstrous actions against Ukraine – are staggering reminders of his brazen contempt for human rights, human dignity and the rule of law.’
Brittney Griner has been released from a Russian penal colony after the Biden Administration was able to reach a deal with the Kremlin on a prisoner swap, according to an administration official
Suspected Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout, center, is led by armed Thai police commandos as he arrives at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand in Oct. 5, 2010. Russia has freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the U.S. releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout
Griner was sentenced in August following her February arrest at an airport in Moscow, when Russian authorities say she was caught entering the country with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. She had been at a detention center near Moscow until November 4, when she was moved to the IK-2 facility in Yavas.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist’s monthslong imprisonment brought attention to the population of wrongful detainees in Russia, while adding pressure on the Biden Administration to complete a prisoner swap for Griner’s release.
Whelan’s family released a statement on Thursday morning saying they were ‘glad’ to hear of Griner’s return but made their frustration at the veteran’s continued imprisonment abundantly clear.
Biden spoke with Griner on the phone Thursday while her wife, Cherelle, was in the Oval Office.
Cherelle delivered brief remarks after the president did, calling Griner’s period of detention ‘the darkest moments of my life.’
‘And so today I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions,’ she said.
‘But the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration.’
Russian and US officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal now that the midterm elections were completed. A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before year’s end.
In releasing Bout, the US freed a a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, 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.
The swap was confirmed by US officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations who were not authorized to publicly discuss the deal before a White House announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity. Biden spoke with Griner on the phone Thursday while her wife, Cherelle, was in the Oval Office. The president was to address reporters later in the morning
PICTURED (from left to right): Biden, Griner’s wife Cherelle, Harris, and Blinken
Griner was in IK-2 in Yavas, one of several penal colonies in the region, according to Reuters÷