Brittney Griner’s Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) teammates, fellow athletes, and sports luminaries cheered her release from Russian custody on Thursday, December 8, months after she was first detained in a Moscow airport.
The twice Olympic champion pleaded guilty to charges of possessing and smuggling illegal drugs but insisted she had made an “honest mistake.” In November she was moved to a Russian penal colony.
“Brittney Griner is free!” tennis legend and women’s pay equity advocate Billie Jean King wrote on Twitter. “Thank you to President Biden, and to all those who worked so hard to secure her freedom.”
Celebration and relief reverberated through the tight-knit world of US women’s basketball, whose members had rallied for her release for months.
“I’m not a hugely emotional person but I got very choked up,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters.
“(I) kind of knew for a couple days that something might be happening but you never know, again, until it happens… when it happened this morning – emotional, that’s all I can say.”
South Carolina women’s collegiate coach Dawn Staley, a Hall of Famer who coached Griner to Olympic gold in Tokyo, told Reuters the news had answered her prayers.
“It’s been really, you know, a roller coaster ride. You get high with the highs and lows with the lows,” she said. “But you continue to believe.”
The WNBA and its men’s counterpart, the National Basketball Association (NBA), had advocated for the release of the eight-times All-Star.
“My best friend is on the way Home!!!!! I love you BG!!!” Emma Cannon, who plays for the Indiana Fever and was previously on Griner’s Phoenix Mercury team, wrote on Twitter.
“Thank you to every single person that kept Brittney Griner’s name alive,” her Mercury teammate Brianna Turner tweeted.
Griner has been released in a prisoner swap with Russia in exchange for former arms dealer Viktor Bout and was heading back to the United States on Thursday, ending what President Joe Biden called months of “hell” for her and her wife.
The swap was arranged after talks spanning months during a time of high tensions between the two countries in the wake of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine.
Even as Griner was on a flight bound for Texas, Bout arrived in Moscow and hugged his mother and wife after stepping onto the tarmac, images on live television showed.
Griner, held since a week before the invasion, traveled from a Russian penal colony to Moscow, then to Abu Dhabi’s airport in the United Arab Emirates where the exchange took place, with the two walking past each other on a tarmac, US officials said.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances,” Biden told reporters at the White House, adding she would arrive within the next 24 hours.
“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release.”
Russia rejected Biden’s attempt to gain the freedom of Paul Whelan, a former Marine also held in Russia, forcing Biden to opt to get out only Griner. He said in his announcement, without providing details, that the Russians treated Whelan’s case differently.
“The choice before us was one or none,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News. “And the president decided that it was important to at least bring Brittney home now and continue to work on getting Paul back, too.”
Griner, 32, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and star of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, was arrested on February 17 at a Moscow airport after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia, were found in her luggage.
She was sentenced on August 4 to nine years in a penal colony.
‘Hell for Brittney’
The Russian foreign ministry said it traded Griner for Bout, 55, a Russian citizen who in 2012 was given a 25-year prison sentence by a US court on charges related to his arms-dealing career. For almost two decades, Bout had been the world’s most notorious arms dealer, selling weapons to rogue states, rebel groups and warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.
“I made it. That’s the main thing,” Bout said on Russian television, adding he had not been told ahead of time what would happen.
“In the middle of the night they simply woke me up and said ‘Get your things together,’” he said.
The swap was a high-profile and rare example of cooperation between Washington and Moscow since the invasion. The two countries also swapped prisoners in April when Russia released former US Marine Trevor Reed and the United States released Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.
The arrangements came together within the past 48 hours after Biden made the decision to exchange Bout in recent weeks, the White House said. A conditional grant of clemency for Bout was not completed until Thursday, after US officials in the UAE verified Griner had arrived there.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone with Griner from the Oval Office, along with Griner’s wife, Cherelle. Biden said Griner was in good spirits and had displayed “grit and incredible dignity” throughout the ordeal.
“These past few months have been hell for Brittney,” and for her wife, family and teammates, Biden said.
The UAE president and Saudi crown prince led mediation efforts that secured Griner’s release, a UAE-Saudi joint statement said.
White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre expressed gratitude that Saudi Arabia and other countries had raised the issue, but said the talks were between Russia and the United States. “There was no mediation involved,” she said.
Some Republicans criticized the Democratic president for making the swap.
Former President Donald Trump derided the exchange of a basketball player for a man in Bout without including Whelan.
“What a ‘stupid’ and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!!!” Trump wrote on social media.
“This is a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it endangers American lives,” House of Representatives Republican leader Kevin McCarthy wrote on social media, referring to Russia’s president.
Biden said, “It’s my job as president of the United States to make the hard calls and protect American citizens everywhere in the world.”
Griner was one of a number of American women’s basketball stars who had played for professional teams in Russia.
Cherelle Griner, who said she was “overwhelmed with emotions,” thanked Biden and his administration.
“Today my family is whole. BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home,” she added, using her wife’s initials.
Griner’s flight is expected to arrive in San Antonio, Texas.
Biden lamented that the United States was unable to win Whelan’s release. “We are not giving up. We will never give up,” he said.
A Biden administration official said the United States had proposed multiple different options for Whelan’s release and that Russia’s “sham espionage” charges against him were the reason Moscow treated his case differently.
US officials spoke to him at length on Thursday about the Griner deal.
Whelan told CNN in an interview: “I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred.”
Bout was one of the world’s most wanted men before his arrest in 2008 in Thailand after a sting operation by US agents who recorded him offering to sell missiles to people he believed were leftist Colombian guerrillas.
Bout was variously dubbed “the merchant of death” and “the sanctions buster” for his ability to get around arms embargoes.
For experts on the Russian security services, Moscow’s lasting interest in Bout hint strongly at Russian intelligence ties. – Rappler.com