Washington/Moscow, 8 December 2022 (dpa/MIA) – US basketball star Brittney Griner, who was given nine years in prison in Russia, was released by Russia after 10 months in exchange for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence in the US.
“After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones – and she should have been there all along,” US President Joe Biden said at the White House on Thursday.
Griner, 32, was convicted for drug possession after being detained in February at a Moscow area airport for having a small amount of cannabis oil in her luggage.
Many saw Griner’s case as politically motivated, although the Kremlin strenuously rejected this. She was taken into custody days before Russian troops invaded Ukraine and as relations between Moscow and Washington plummeted.
The Olympic champion, who in November was transferred from a detention centre to a penal colony in the Russian region of Mordovia, argued in court that she used the oil to treat a medical condition.
Griner pleaded guilty to the charges but said she had never intended to break Russian laws. An appeal over the tough sentence was rejected by a Moscow regional court in October.
“These past few months have been hell for Brittney,” Biden said, flanked by his vice president, secretary of state and Griner’s wife Cherelle.
“I’m glad to be able to say that Brittney is in good spirits. She is relieved to be finally heading home,” said Biden, who shortly before had spoken with Griner on the phone.
He described the high-level negotiations to obtain her release as “painstaking and intense.” He also thanked the United Arab Emirates for its role in the exchange. The swap took place at Abu Dhabi’s airport.
Biden said that he was “not giving up” in trying to secure the freedom of Paul Whelan, a US citizen who has been held in Russia for years. The White House had aimed for both Whelan and Griner to be released in exchange for Bout.
“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said.
Bout, who is known as the “Merchant of Death,” was convicted in a US court in 2011 and was serving a 25-year prison sentence. He was accused of having illegally supplied weapons to criminal regimes and rebels in several countries.
Bout was now on a plane to Russia, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said.
Griner had played for Russian top club UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Urals since 2015 and won the Euroleague four times with them. In the US women’s professional league WNBA, she won the championship with the Phoenix Mercury in 2014. With the US national team she won two Olympic golds and two FIBA World Cup golds.
According to the judiciary, the athlete was carrying vape cartridges and reportedly 0.5 grams of cannabis oil during a baggage check at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on February 17. Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.