Brittney Griner Released by Russia in Prisoner Swap

Brittney Griner Released by Russia in Prisoner Swap

The WNBA star Brittney Griner, who had been imprisoned in Russia for months on drug-related charges, was freed on Thursday as part of a prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout, putting an end to the ordeal that had sparked protracted, high-level talks between the United States and the Kremlin to secure her release.

The exchange was announced at the White House by President Biden, who added, “She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home.” “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped working for Brittney’s release. After months of being wrongfully jailed in Russia, confined under awful conditions, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along.”

The trade, which took place in the United Arab Emirates, was originally reported by CBS News, according to a U.S. official. According to people familiar with the agreement, Mr. Biden only recently gave final clearance to the exchange agreement that was negotiated with Moscow in recent weeks.

As of last Thursday, the agreement had been struck, according to five former U.S. officials.

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. Griner was anticipated to get a medical examination right away, as is customary for recently released American convicts.

Brittney was excited to return home, Mr. Biden said, adding that he was “happy to be able to say Brittney is in excellent spirits.” She was sentenced to prison after a “show trial in Russia,” which the president disregarded and claimed she “didn’t seek special treatment.” The president demanded Bout’s freedom and return to Russia in exchange for Griner’s release.

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The commutation order that reduced Bout’s 25-year federal prison term was signed by Mr. Biden. Notably, the exchange of Griner for Bout leaves retired U.S. Paul Whelan, a Marine, detained 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. One person stated that the U.S. had “an option between bringing home one particular American – Brittney Griner — or bringing home none” after it became evident during negotiations with the Russians that obtaining Bout’s release in exchange for Griner and Whelan was out of the question.

In a phone interview with CNN on Thursday, Whelan expressed his relief that Griner was free but expressed “deep disappointment” that more had not been done to obtain his release, particularly given that the fourth anniversary of his arrest was approaching.

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. The fourth anniversary of Whelan’s detention by Russia occurs this month.

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 for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian smuggler convicted of planning to import cocaine. Marine who had spent nearly three years in prison in Russia.

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.