WBNA star Brittney Griner has been released from detainment in Russia in a prisoner swap nearly nine months after her arrest at a Moscow airport.
US officials have said Ms Griner was freed in exchange for the US releasing Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout following months of talks between Washington and Moscow over the basketball star’s fate.
A senior Biden administration official said Ms Griner was “all smiles” when she was released at an airport in the United Arab Emirates, where she was met by Ambassador Roger Carstens, the US special presidential envoy for Hostage Affairs.
According to the White House, president Joe Biden has already spoken to Ms Griner following her release. Photographs published on the president’s official Twitter account show that Ms Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, was present in the Oval Office at the time, as was vice president Kamala Harris.
Mr Biden wrote that he’d spoken with Ms Griner “moments” before the photos were made public.
“She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” he said.
A short time later, Mr Biden appeared in the White House’s Roosevelt Room with Cherelle Griner, Ms Harris, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to deliver brief remarks on the release of the two-time Olympic gold medalist.
He said Ms Griner’s release from what he described as the “hell” of a Russian prison marked “a good morning” and “a day we’ve worked towards for a long time”.
“We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstaking and intensive negotiations and I want to thank all the hard-working public servants across my administration, who worked tirelessly to secure her release,” he said.
Mr Biden also said the US would “never give up” trying to free other Americans who have been wrongfully detained by Russia, including former US marine Paul Whelan, who has been in Russian custody since he was arrested before Christmas in 2018 on what American officials have described as bogus spying charges.
Ms Griner’s release brings an end to an ordeal that began on 17 February, just before Russia launched its ongoing war against Ukraine. The WNBA star, who had been playing basketball in Russia during the American league’s off-season, was detained after customs officials found vaporiser cartridges in her luggage which allegedly contained cannabis oil.
In her July trial, the Russian government said she “bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil,” the state news agency Tass reported.
On 7 July, Ms Griner pleaded guilty, telling the Russian judge that she had “no intent” to violate Russian drug laws. The judge sentenced her to nine years in prison despite her lawyers’ pleas for leniency.
Multiple athletes including NBA superstar LeBron James and US Women’s footballer Megan Rapinoe called for her release. When Ms Rapinoe received the presidential Medal of Freedom from Mr Biden earlier this year, she wore a jacket with Ms Griner’s initials.
The United States government quickly classified Ms Griner as having been “wrongfully detained” and began pushing for her release through diplomatic channels even as tensions between the US and Russia continued to step up over the invasion of Ukraine.
White House officials who briefed reporters on the process leading to her release said Ms Griner was moved from the penal colony she had been at and taken to Moscow “a couple of days ago” while negotiations were ongoing. She was flown to the United Arab Emirates this morning for the prisoner swap.
An administration official said Ms Griner will be offered “a wide range of support” as part of a US government programme developed to help Americans who return home after being held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.
“You probably won’t hear much from us as a government as to those next steps. But it is important that folks realize that not only do we work hard to bring people home, but we work hard then to help them with that transition back to being home and all of that is of course available to Brittany the way it is to every American we bring home,” the official said, adding that Ms Griner’s safe return is a product of “months and months of painstaking negotiations” and reflects “the culmination of extraordinary efforts” by the entire US government.
The official said the administration “had been and continued to engage in difficult negotiations” for the release of both Ms Griner and Mr Whelan over the past months, long after it became known that the US had floated a prisoner swap in which Ms Griner and Mr Whelan would have been exchanged for Mr Bout.
The official also said Mr Biden “personally tracked” the status of the talks and was kept updated on their progress.
“In recent days, we were able to reach agreement on an option to secure Brittany's release. President Biden made the difficult decision to accept that option because it resulted in a safe return home of an American. That is always our goal, to get wrongfully detained Americans home safely,” they said.
“While we celebrate Britney’s homecoming, we remain committed to seeing Paul Whelan likewise released,” the official continued.
The official also said Mr Biden is prepared to “personally convey his commitment” to securing Mr Whelan’s release, but stressed that Russian officials were unwilling to part with Mr Whelan because they consider him a captured spy.
“Regrettably due to the nature of the sham espionage charges Russia levied against call the Russians have treated you to treat this situation differently from Brittany’s and rejected each and every one of our proposals for his release,” the official said.
“I want to be very clear: this was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home. It was a choice between bringing home one particular American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home no one”.
A second Biden administration official said they expect channels between the US and Russia to “remain open” regarding negotiations over Mr Whelan’s status.
“The Russians know directly from us in multiple channels how unacceptable we find his detention, how urgent we regard his release, how committed we are to breaking through the impasse and finding ways that will achieve the result for him that we're so delighted to achieve, to have achieved for Brittney today,” they said.
Asked about the propriety of trading Bout, a notorious arms dealer who has been nicknamed the “merchant of death,” for Ms Griner, the official replied with another question.
“How is it acceptable for someone like Brittney Griner to be put through sham proceedings and ... sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony and horrific circumstances that she did not deserve?” they asked.
“We regard that as unacceptable,” the official said, adding later that the Biden administration believes there is “a moral obligation” and “a policy obligation” to bring home Americans who have been taken hostage or have been wrongfully detained abroad.
With additional reporting by agencies
Graig Graziosi and Abe Asher contributed to this report