Russia frees US basketball star Brittney Griner in prisoner swap

Moscow says Griner was traded for Viktor Bout, a Russian former arms dealer convicted and jailed in the United States.

Brittney Griner smiling as she sits on a plane on her way out of Russia. She's wearing a red jacket and grey beanie
Brittney Griner on the plane out of Russia [Russian Federal Security Service via AP Photo]

Basketball star Brittney Griner has been freed from a Russian prison and is on her way home to the United States after a prisoner swap with convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year jail term in the US.

News of the release spurred messages of relief from US officials, supporters and Griner’s loved ones who had been campaigning for her return for months.

The exchange took place at Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates on Thursday, Russian news agencies reported.

US President Joe Biden said Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was “on her way home”.

“She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden wrote in a Tweet that featured a picture of him and Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner.

The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the swap, saying in a statement that Bout had been flown home. Russian media showed Griner walking off a Russian plane in Abu Dhabi where she was greeted by a US official. Two Russians greeted Bout, once nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”, with a hug.

Later, Russian TV showed Bout walking off the plane on a snow-covered tarmac in Moscow, his mother and wife hugging him and giving him flowers.

‘Incomparable athlete’

Griner, 32, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and star of the Phoenix Mercury at the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), was arrested on February 17 at a Moscow airport when cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia, were found in her luggage.

Her arrest came days before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 as ties between Washington and Moscow came under further strain. The Biden administration, early on, said she had been “wrongfully detained”.

On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the prisoner exchange deal should not be seen as a step towards improving bilateral relations between Russian and the US.

Peskov said ties between the two countries remained in a “sorry state”, according to the TASS news agency.

Throughout her time in Russian custody, Griner’s relatives, teammates and supporters called on the US government to put its full weight behind the case to secure her release.

She was sentenced on August 4 to nine years in prison on charges of possessing and smuggling drugs. She had pleaded guilty but said she had made an “honest mistake” and had not meant to break the law.

Her lawyers described the sentence as excessive, stressing that it does not “correspond to the gravity of the crime”.

Last month, Griner was taken to a penal colony in the Russian region of Mordovia to serve her sentence.

In a brief address at the White House on Thursday, Biden said the “past few months have been hell for Brittney” but that she was in good spirits. He praised the basketball star as an “incomparable athlete”.

“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstaking and intense negotiations,” the US president said.

Dozens of US politicians, athletes and commentators expressed joy and gratitude for Griner’s release on Thursday.

“BG is FREE!!! 294 days and she is coming home!!!” Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart wrote on Twitter.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert hailed what she called Griner’s “extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of enormous adversity”.

“There has not been a day over the past ten months where we all haven’t had Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy and relief knowing that she will soon be reunited with her family, the WNBA player community, and her friends,” Engelbert said in a statement.

Paul Whelan case

The prisoner swap did not include Paul Whelan, a US marine veteran who was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges that Washington maintains are false.

On Thursday, Biden promised to continue to push for Whelan’s release. “While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up,” Biden said. “We remain in close touch with Paul’s family – the Whelan family – and my thoughts and prayers are with them today.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also mentioned Whelan as he welcomed Griner’s freeing.

“While we celebrate Brittney’s release, Paul Whelan and his family continue to suffer needlessly,” Blinken said in a statement. “Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian Government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention.”

A US official said Griner’s release from Russia came together in the last 48 hours, adding that the Biden administration offered Moscow multiple options to secure Whelan’s release.

“It was bringing Brittney Griner home right now or bringing no American home right now,” the official told reporters on the condition of anonymity in a telephone briefing.

The official said the talks to secure Griner’s release did not address broader issues with Russia.

Several US media outlets reported that Griner will be flown to San Antonio, Texas, where she will undergo a routine medical evaluation on arrival.

‘Merchant of death’

The UAE and Saudi Arabia said in a joint statement on Thursday that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed led the negotiations to secure the prisoner swap deal.

But later on Thursday, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre stressed that the prisoner swap deal was reached in talks between Washington and Moscow alone.

“The only countries that negotiated this deal were the United States and Russia, and there was no mediation involved,” she said.

“We are grateful for the UAE… for facilitating the use of their territory for the exchange to take place. We are also grateful to other countries, including Saudi Arabia, that raised the issue of our wrongfully detained Americans with the Russian government.”

Bout, a 55-year-old former Soviet army lieutenant colonel, was accused of arming rebel groups in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts.

Moscow said it had been negotiating with Washington to secure Bout’s release “for a long time” and that initially the US had “refused dialogue” on including him in any swap.

“Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot. The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland,” the defence ministry said.

Once described by the US Justice Department as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers, Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the US two years later.

Bout’s life was the inspiration for the 2005 film Lord of War starring Nicolas Cage.

Some US Republicans criticised the swap deal on Thursday, citing Bout’s notoriety and the fact Whelan remains jailed in Russia.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies