WASHINGTON, Dec 8 (Reuters) – U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has been released in a prisoner swap with Russia and is on her way back to the United States, President Joe Biden said on Thursday, ending what he called months of “hell.”
The Russian foreign ministry said it traded Griner for Russian citizen Viktor Bout, a former arms dealer. The swap took place at Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates, Russian news agencies 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.”
Griner, 32, a star of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Mercury, was arrested on Feb. 17. Talks to secure her release were complicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 and the subsequent deep souring of ties between Washington and Moscow.
The swap was one of the most high-profile and rare examples of cooperation between Washington and Moscow since the invasion.
The UAE president and Saudi crown prince led mediation efforts that secured Griner’s release, a UAE-Saudi joint statement said.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone with Griner from the Oval Office, along with Griner’s wife, Cherelle. The White House released a photo of the telephone call.
“These past few months have been hell for Brittney,” and for her wife, Biden said.
A two-time Olympic gold medalist, Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport when vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia, were found in her luggage.
She was sentenced on Aug. 4 to nine years in a penal colony on charges of possessing and smuggling drugs. She had pleaded guilty, but said she had made an “honest mistake” and had not meant to break the law.
Last month she was taken to a penal colony in the Russian region of Mordovia to serve her prison sentence.
Cherelle Griner, who said she was “overwhelmed with emotions,” thanked Biden and members of his administration for their work to free her wife.
“Today my family is whole,” she said. “BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home.”
Biden said the United States would continue to work to free Paul Whelan, a former Marine.
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up,” Biden said.
Whelan’s brother, David, said the U.S. government alerted his family in advance, giving them time to prepare mentally for the disappointment.
“I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home,” he said. “The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”
Biden thanked the United Arab Emirates for helping facilitate Griner’s return but did not mention Saudi Arabia in his remarks.
Griner’s teammates and other WNBA players cheered her release.
“Thank you to every single person that kept Brittney Griner’s name alive,” her Phoenix Mercury teammate Brianna Turner wrote on Twitter.
Bout, 55, was one of the world’s most wanted men before his arrest, and was variously dubbed “the merchant of death” and “the sanctions buster” for his ability to get around arms embargoes.
For almost two decades, Bout became the world’s most notorious arms dealer, selling weaponry to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia and South America. For experts on the Russian security services, Moscow’s lasting interest in Bout hint strongly at Russian intelligence ties.
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