WNBA star Brittney Griner has been released from a Russian prison colony in a prisoner exchange, President Joe Biden confirmed Thursday.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said from the White House, where he was accompanied by Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and administration officials.
Going in the other direction is arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death.”
Bout is a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel who, according to U.S. officials, was trying to sell weapons to be used against Americans. Bout was serving a 25-year sentence at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois, and was set to be released in August 2029, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Griner was detained Feb. 17 at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Khimki while returning to Russia to play basketball during the WNBA’s off-season, just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
The Olympic gold medalist was arrested on drug charges after Russian officials alleged Griner had several THC vape cartridges in her possession.
Griner faced a 10-year maximum prison sentence and was detained indefinitely leading up to her trial.
Biden said the “past few months have been hell for Brittney” but that she is in good spirits, after speaking on the phone with her from the White House.
In a statement, Biden insisted he never forgot Griner. Despite Derek Maltz, who oversaw the Drug Enforcement Administration’s investigation of Viktor Bout, being reportedly unhappy about the exchange, the Biden administration said it was the only path to setting Griner free.
“Through multiple, multiple engagements, the Russians made clear that the only route to securing Britney’s return was a release of a Russian national, Viktor Bout,” said a Biden administration official. “In the last 48 hours, as this had all come together, Brittney was moved from the penal colony where she was being held to Moscow, and this morning, she was brought to the United Arab Emirates, where she was met by U.S. officials.”
On ESPN’s “First Take” Thursday morning, South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, who has talked daily on her social media accounts about Griner’s situation, said the news of Griner’s release moved her to tears.
“I cried,” Staley said, “and I’m a girl from Philly, we don’t cry very easily. But I cried, because this is the moment we’ve all been praying for. I know her heart is for the voiceless, I think her voice will be as strong as strong can be … when she speaks out, when she advocates for those who have been in the position she’s been in, that we continue to wrap our arms around her, to make sure she has the strength to continue to endure the fight that’s ahead of her — because there’s a fight.”
However, Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018, is still in Russian custody.
Whelan was arrested on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have said are baseless.
“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.”