Washington (AFP) – American basketball star Brittney Griner was headed home on Thursday after being freed from a Russian prison in a swap for Viktor Bout, the notorious arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.”
President Joe Biden announced Griner’s release in an early morning address to the nation and Moscow confirmed she had been exchanged in Abu Dhabi for Bout, who was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.
“She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden said, adding that he had spoken to Griner and she was in “good spirits” after what he described as a “terrible ordeal.”
Another American held in Russia, Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who was arrested in Russia in 2018 and accused of spying, was not part of the deal and he told CNN he was “greatly disappointed.”
“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” Whelan told the US television network in a phone call from the Russian penal colony where he is imprisoned.
Biden pledged to continue to seek Whelan’s freedom. “Sadly, Russia is treating Paul’s case different than Brittney’s and even though we have not secured Paul’s release we will never give up,” he said.
The 32-year-old Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA champion and LGBT trailblazer, was arrested at a Moscow airport in February against a backdrop of soaring tensions over Ukraine.
She was accused of possession of vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil and sentenced in August to nine years in prison.
Biden said Griner would need time to recover from “needless trauma” after being “wrongfully detained” and held in Russia’s IK-2 penal colony in the central region of Mordovia.
Biden made the announcement at the White House flanked by Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions,” Cherelle Griner said, describing her wife’s imprisonment as “one of the darkest moments of my life.”
She also acknowledged Whelan’s fate, saying: “Today my family is whole, but as you all are aware there’s so many other families who are not whole.”
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert welcomed Griner’s freedom saying there was a “collective wave of joy and relief” in the women’s professional league where Griner has been a star for a decade.
‘Family is whole’
Biden publicly thanked the United Arab Emirates for helping “facilitate” Griner’s release and the UAE issued a joint statement with Saudi Arabia saying it was the result of “mediation efforts” by leaders of the two Arab nations.
Griner and Bout were flown to Abu Dhabi by private planes, the statement said, and were exchanged “in the presence of specialists from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.”
Biden said Griner was expected back in the United States within 24 hours.
At the time of her arrest, Griner had been in Russia to play for the professional Yekaterinburg team, during her off-season from the Phoenix Mercury.
She pleaded guilty to the charges against her, but said she did not intend to break the law or use the banned substance in Russia.
Griner testified that she had permission from a US doctor to use medicinal cannabis to relieve pain from her many injuries, and had never failed a drug test.
The use of medical marijuana is not allowed in Russia.
The Russian foreign ministry said it had been negotiating with Washington to secure Bout’s release “for a long time” and that initially the United States had “refused dialogue” on including him in any swap.
“Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot,” it said. “The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland.”
The 55-year-old Bout, who was accused of arming rebels in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, was arrested in a US sting operation in Thailand in 2008, extradited to the United States and sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison.
The 2005 film “Lord of War” starring Nicolas Cage was based in part on Bout’s arms trafficking exploits and he has been the subject of several books and television shows.
Asked about Bout’s release, a senior US defense official said “there is a concern that he would return to doing the same kind of work that he’s done in the past.”