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.
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 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, President Joe Biden said Griner was ‘in good spirits’ while returning home after undergoing ‘intolerable’ circumstances in Russian custody.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
Griner was in IK-2 in Yavas, one of several penal colonies in the region, according to Reuters