Brittney Griner, Phoenix Mercury center and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) All-Star has been released from a Russian penal colony in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout, President Joe Biden said on Thursday.
A US official informed that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris talked with Griner on phone from the Oval Office and Griner’s wife Cherelle was also on the call.
Griner was released in a prisoner swap about which the Russian foreign ministry stated that it exchanged her for Russian citizen Viktor Bout who was an arms dealer earlier.
The exchange had two private planes with Griner and Bout on board coming from Moscow and Washington respectively to Abu Dhabi and then flying them home. Reportedly, Saudi Arabia played a mediation part in the exchange process.
Who is Viktor Bout?
Before his capture, Bout, known as “the merchant of death,” was among the most sought men in the world for his role as a notorious arms dealer who supplied weapons to homicidal warlords and rebel groups in South America, Africa, and Asia. Viktor Bout became one of the most sought persons in the world after providing weapons to warlords and unsavoury governments.
USA welcomes Brittney Griner
The USA Basketball welcomes her release with a statement on Twitter. Though it is not clear whether she would play basketball again, both WNBA and USA basketball expressed their happiness over her release. The WNBA season will begin on May 19.
Welcome home, Brittney Griner 🤍 pic.twitter.com/ELtuqHiwXk
— USA Basketball (@usabasketball) December 8, 2022
Biden, accompanied by Cherelle in the White House said, “She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home”. He said, “Ms Griner had been held under intolerable circumstances” and been through a “terrible ordeal. I’m glad to be able to say that Britney is in good spirits. She’s relieved to finally be heading home.” He added, “Ms Griner represents the best of America.”
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
What happened with Griner?
32-year-old Brittney Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medallist and is one of the best-known sportswomen in the United States. During the US basketball season, Griner is a star centre for Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA.
Russian authorities detained Griner in February after the customs agents found vape canisters consisting of cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.
Talking about the exchange and release process, Russia’s foreign ministry said, “On December 8, 2022, the procedure for the exchange of Russian citizen Viktor Bout for U.S. citizen Brittney Griner, who were serving their sentences in correctional institutions of the United States of America and the Russian Federation, respectively, was successfully completed at Abu Dhabi Airport.”
Brittney was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges of possessing and smuggling drugs after pleading guilty but she insisted on making an “honest mistake” and not intended to break the law.
Talking about her ordeal, Cherelle said, “I was overwhelmed with emotions after going through one of the darkest moments of my life. So today my family is whole, but as you all are aware, there’s so many other families who are not whole.”
Who is Paul Whelan?
U.S. Republican lawmakers have expressed dissatisfaction over the exchange deal as it does not include the former United States Marine Paul Whelan, who is serving 16 years on espionage charges, which he denies
The US made it plain that ex-marine Paul Whelan should be included in a trade when talks to obtain Griner’s release during the summer began.
Alexei Tarasov, Bout’s attorney, said on Russian television that the US had always demanded the release of two of its citizens, and Russia’s foreign ministry lamented that “Washington categorically refuses to engage in talks.” The hopes of Whelan’s family were dashed when it became apparent that he would not be included in the Russian swap after being imprisoned in 2018 on allegations of spying. Bout’s 25-year prison sentence was finally commuted by President Biden, who also directly swapped Griner for Bout.