Brittney Griner Released by Russia in Prisoner Swap (2)

Brittney Griner Released by Russia in Prisoner Swap

Early on Friday morning, Brittney Griner touched down in the United States at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. The WNBA star, who had been imprisoned in Russia for months on drug-related charges, was freed on Thursday as part of a prisoner swap for infamous international arms dealer Viktor Bout, putting an end to the ordeal that had sparked protracted high-level negotiations between the White House and the Russian government to secure her release.

The special presidential envoy for hostage situations, Roger Carstens, tweeted: “I’m so glad Brittney is back in the United States. Welcoming back, BG!” Griner was anticipated to get a medical examination right away, as is customary for recently released American convicts. Griner’s upcoming arrival was announced by President Biden at the White House on Thursday morning, adding, “She is secure. She is flying. She’s headed home.”

Brittney will soon return to her loved ones’ arms after being kept inhumanely for months in Russia, according to Mr. Biden. “She should have been there all along,” he said. “We’ve been working toward this day for a very long time. We never gave up trying to get her out.” The trade, which took place in the United Arab Emirates, was originally reported by CBS News, according to a U.S. official.

The arrangement was made last Thursday, according to five former U.S. officials who spoke to CBS News. The vice president, secretary of state Antony Blinken, vice president Kamala Harris, and Griner’s wife Cherelle were present when the president claimed to have spoken to Griner on the phone from the Oval Office.

“Glad to be able to say Brittney is in good spirits,” Mr. Biden stated. She was sentenced to prison after a “show trial in Russia,” which he denied and claimed she “didn’t seek special treatment.” The president gave the order to free Bout and send him back to Russia in exchange for Griner’s freedom. The commutation order that reduced Bout’s 25-year federal prison term was signed by Mr. Biden.

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Notably, the Griner-for-Bout trade resulted in the detention of retired US Marine Paul Whelan in Russia. Whelan has spent almost four years in Russian captivity. The U.S. has deemed the espionage accusations of which he was found guilty to be baseless. Paul Whelan is still a priority for us, Mr. Biden said on Thursday, adding that we “will never give up” trying to secure his release.

The possibility of obtaining Bout’s release in return for Griner and Whelan became obvious in conversations with the Russians, according to U.S. officials, who told reporters that the U.S. had “an option between bringing home one particular American—Brittney Griner—or bringing home none.”

Griner’s release made Whelan delighted, but he was “greatly upset that more has not been done to ensure my freedom, especially since the fourth anniversary of my detention is approaching,” Whelan told CNN in a phone call on Thursday. The fourth anniversary of Whelan’s detention by Russia occurs this month.

Griner, a 32-year-old star center for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA, was arrested in February at a Russian airport and later entered a guilty plea to charges related to the discovery of cartridges containing cannabis-derived oil in her luggage. When Griner visited the nation to take part in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA offseason, she claimed she had no intention of bringing the cartridges with her.

Sources claim that the one-for-one exchange took place over the past two weeks after five months of stalled diplomacy and other prospective swap deals, including a previously unreported offer by the U.S. this past summer to send two detainees back to Russia in exchange for the two Americans.

Whelan, a former corporate security contractor, was held in a hotel in December 2018 while visiting Moscow for a friend’s wedding. Later, he was given a 16-year prison term by Russian authorities for espionage, which the United States and Whelan both contested.

Bout was apprehended by the Drug Enforcement Agency in Thailand after a sting operation in 2008. He was most recently housed at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois. Ten years ago, he started serving a 25-year sentence after being found guilty of planning to assassinate Americans.

Griner’s detention occurred at the same time as Russia’s aggressive invasion of Ukraine began in February, and this conflict has affected all of the United States relations with the Kremlin. Both Griner and Whelan, according to the United States, were “wrongfully arrested,” and authorities have long held the suspicion that Russia was using the American detainees as bargaining chips.

The second prisoner exchange between the Biden administration and Russia involves Griner’s return for Bout. In April, the United States exchanged Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who had spent nearly three years in prison in Russia, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian smuggler found guilty of planning to import cocaine.

The Griner-for-Bout trade was anticipated as of last Thursday, but CBS News complied with the White House’s request to delay publication due to serious concerns about the deal’s brittleness. Officials from the Biden administration issued a warning that leaking information about the swap beforehand would almost probably result in Russia pulling out of the deal and put Griner’s safety in jeopardy.