Russia frees Brittney Griner in prisoner swap for arms dealer

Russia released WNBA star Brittney Griner in a prisoner exchange, according to a family source.

“A moment ago I spoke with Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” President Joe Biden said on Twitter confirming her arrival. In a conference from the White House, the president added that Griner “is in a good mood.”

“After months of being wrongfully detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittany will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, where she should have been all along,” Biden said in the Roosevelt Room minutes after the announcement of the Griner’s release.

The American athlete was traded for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

An official confirmed to CNN earlier Thursday that Griner was already in the custody of US officials. For his part, Russia confirmed that Viktor Bout returned to his home in Russia, state media RIA Novosti reported, citing the Foreign Ministry.

The prisoner exchange “was successfully completed at Abu Dhabi airport” on Thursday, state media added.

Bout, nicknamed “The Merchant of Death,” is a former Soviet military man serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles, and providing material support to a terrorist organization. Moscow had criticized his 2012 sentence as “unfounded and biased” and Bout has maintained that he is innocent.

Griner, who had played for years for a Russian women’s basketball team, had been detained since February, when she was arrested on drug trafficking charges at a Moscow region airport.

In her testimony, Griner explained that she had inadvertently packed the cannabis oil found in her luggage. However, she was sentenced to nine years in prison in early August and transferred to a penal colony in Mordovia in mid-November after losing her appeal.

The agreed exchange did not include another American—Paul Whelan—who the State Department has incorrectly declared detained. An American, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, he was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged that he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges which he has vehemently denied.

Whelan is serving his sentence in a labor camp in Mordovia, an eight-hour drive from Moscow, where he told CNN in June 2021 that he spent his days working in a garment factory that he called a “sweatshop.” exploitation”.

The only deal possible

President Biden was “personally involved and in constant contact” with his team when this deal was finalized in recent days and after he himself gave the green light for the trade to be executed. The briefings, and the questions Biden posed to his team, were constant, a senior administration official said.

A senior government official added that the deal was correct, but in particular it was “the only deal we could do at the moment.”

Biden, a White House official told CNN, “will talk about the importance of Brittney being brought home safely” in his remarks in a few minutes.

He is also expected to refer to Paul Whelan, who is jailed in Russia, and reiterate America’s “commitment to ensuring that Paul Whelan comes home, too.”

On Thursday, Biden also vowed that he would “never give up” on bringing Paul Whelan back to the United States, adding that “it was not a decision about which American to bring home.”

“We have not forgotten Paul Whelan, who was wrongfully detained in Russia for years. This was not a choice about which American to bring home,” Biden said, adding that for “totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s, and while we have not yet managed to secure Paul’s release We are not going to give up.”

Biden said his administration would stay in close contact with Paul Whelan’s family and acknowledged the “mixed emotions” they must be feeling today.

“We will continue to negotiate in good faith for Paul’s release. I guarantee it. I tell the family that: I guarantee it. And I urge Russia to do the same: ensure that Paul’s health and humane treatment are maintained until we can bring him home. I don’t want any American to be unfairly detained for another day if we can bring that person home.”

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