It’s a good day for Brittney Griner and her family. After months of negotiations, the WNBA star has finally been freed and is on her way back home to loved ones!
According to NBC, Griner was released today (December 8) after the Biden administration negotiated her release from a Russian penal colony in exchange for notorious arms dealer Victor Bout.
President Joe Biden signed off on the trade, which took place in the UAE, although it meant leaving Paul Whelan, an American corporate security executive who remains held in Russia.
“She is safe, she is on a plane, she is on her way home,” Biden said in remarks from the White House on Thursday morning. “She will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.”
Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner.
She is safe.
She is on a plane.
She is on her way home. pic.twitter.com/FmHgfzrcDT
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 8, 2022
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, was in the Oval Office with Biden, and the two were able to communicate with her by phone, as per reports by a senior administration official.
According to the official, Griner will be flown to a medical facility in San Antonio, where she will receive care. Cherelle will meet her there.
The move marks one of the most high-profile prisoner swaps between Russia and the U.S since the Cold War, with the Kremlin seeing the return of Viktor Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death” (because he’s considered the world’s largest illicit arms dealer), who Russian President Vladimir Putin has been wanting to get back – and has served 11 years of a 25-year sentence in an American Federal Prison.
Griner’s return home will cap months-long of stalled diplomacy and various permutations of potential swap arrangements that began in February (almost ten months ago) when she was detained at Russia’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was later convicted on the drug charges.
The 32-year-old WNBA star was the subject of prolonged and widely publicized negotiations between the two nations after a trial that underscored frayed relations amid the Russian-Ukraine war.
During her trial in July, Griner pleaded guilty but said she had no criminal intent. She said the canisters, which she’d been prescribed to manage chronic pain, were packed accidentally as she swiftly prepared for her flight.
Speaking after the president, Cherelle Griner thanked government officials for their efforts in bringing her wife home, saying her imprisonment has been “one of the darkest moments of my life.”
“Today, my family is whole. But as you all are aware, there are so many other families that are not whole,” she said, adding that she’ll “remain committed” to bringing all Americans home, including Paul Whelan.
Biden’s administration had sought the release of both Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.
Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence after he was accused of spying, which the U.S has vehemently denied.
Individuals familiar with the negotiations of his release say Russian authorities refused to release him without getting a Russian spy in return. The U.S insists it doesn’t have any Russian spy in custody, and thus there’s no one to trade with to meet the Kremlin’s demands.
Nonetheless, the U.S administration says it’s not giving up and working tirelessly to get him released. In his speech, Biden said the prisoner swap for Griner “was not a choice of which American to bring home.”
“We have not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years,” Biden said.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home. We brought home Trevor Reed, when we had a chance earlier this year. Sadly, for illegitimate reasons, Russia has treated Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” he continued.
“And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we have not given up. We will never give up. We remain in close touch with Paul’s family, the Whelan family, and my thoughts and prayers are with them today. They have to have such mixed emotions today.”