Brittney Griner released from Russian custody in prisoner swap

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Brittney Griner released in prisoner swap with Russia, Biden says
U.S. President Biden spoke at the White House on Thursday after WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from Russian custody as part of a prisoner exchange with Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout – Dec 8, 2022

WNBA star Brittney Griner has been released from a Russian penal colony in a prisoner exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to a senior administration official.

Griner is now in the custody of U.S. officials, President Joe Biden announced, and is on a plane heading back to the U.S. Her wife Cherelle was photographed in the Oval Office with the president.

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Griner was first arrested back in February after Russian customs officials found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty to drug charges in July and was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony where she has remained since early November.

Griner, a two-time Olympic champion and one of the biggest stars of the WNBA, was the most prominent American wrongfully detained abroad until her release on Thursday. The Biden administration has faced intense pressure to bring her home.

“Brittney Griner has shown bravery and resolve over the last nearly 300 days,” USA Basketball tweeted upon Griner’s release. “We look forward to seeing Brittney again when the time is right and wish her the best in the days and weeks ahead.”

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In negotiating for Griner’s release, U.S. officials agreed to a prisoner swap with Bout, who was once described by the U.S. Justice Department as one of the most prolific arms dealers in the world.

Bout, a former Soviet lieutenant colonel, was dubbed the “Merchant of Death” for his exploits, and even inspired a Hollywood movie, Lord of War.

Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 after an elaborate U.S. sting operation. He was caught on camera agreeing to sell million-dollar missiles to U.S. agents, posing as Colombian guerrillas who said they would use the weapons to kill U.S. troops.

The swap of Griner for Bout carried a heavy price, leaving behind another American detained in Russia. Paul Whelan, who is also a Canadian, Irish, and British citizen, has been wrongfully imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges since 2018.

U.S. officials had for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Whelan, but the Michigan security executive was not included in the swap.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Thursday that U.S. officials have not given up on Whelan, and are still working to bring him home.

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Whelan, who is being held in a remote penal colony, said he was doesn’t “understand” why hasn’t been released yet.

“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,” Whelan said in a phone call with CNN. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”

Griner’s saga has reached international eyes. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal battle and made each development a matter of global importance.

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Before a judge handed down her nine-year sentence, Griner tearfully recognized her mistake in bringing the cannabis oil through Russian customs, which she attributed to hasty packing.

“My parents taught me two important things: one, take ownership of your responsibilities and two, work hard for everything that you have. That’s why I pled guilty to my charges,” she said in court.

“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said before breaking down in tears.

Her case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but it also emerged as a major inflection point in U.S.-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

The exchange was carried out despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the imprisonment of Americans produced a rare diplomatic opening, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow — a phone call between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — in more than five months.

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In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken revealed publicly in July that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Though he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the U.S. had offered Bout.

Besides the efforts of U.S. officials, the release also followed months of backchannel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his top deputy Mickey Bergman. The men had made multiple trips abroad in the last year to discuss swap scenarios with Russian contacts.

— With files from The Associated Press

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