American basketball player Brittney Griner has been released in Russia following a prisoner exchange between Moscow and Washington. The United States, in return, has freed arms dealer Viktor Bout, government sources tell the Associated Press. This agreement, however, does not include a second US citizen detained in Russia since 2018 and whose release President Biden also wanted to achieve.
The White House has released several images this Thursday of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris speaking on the phone with Griner, from the Oval Office, along with the basketball player’s wife, Cherelle Griner. “A few moments ago I spoke with Brittney Griner”, says the message. “You are safe. He is on a plane. He is on his way home.”
The exchange ends the detention of Griner, 32, a two-time Olympic gold medalist with the US team who was arrested a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Griner had been sentenced to nine years in jail for drug possession and smuggling, and both her arrest and her sentence have multiplied the pressure on Biden to get her released.
Russian diplomacy has reported that the prisoner exchange was completed this Thursday at the Abu Dhabi airport, although it is still unknown when Griner will set foot on US soil. Biden has added in an appearance from the White House that the United Arab Emirates has facilitated the release of the player.
“After months of wrongful detention in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be with her loved ones, which is where she should have been all this time,” Biden said. The president has recognized that, while Griner achieves freedom, the US has not been able to achieve the same for his compatriot Paul Whelan, a US marine who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia for espionage.
“This was never a question of which one to bring home.” Biden has accused Russia of treating Whelan’s case “in a totally different way” from that of the player. “Although we have not yet achieved his release, we have not given up. We never give up”.
In exchange, Russia achieves the return of Bout, nicknamed in the US as “the merchant of death” and who until now was serving a 25-year prison sentence for espionage. Last November, Russian Foreign Undersecretary Sergei Ryabkov stated that Moscow’s objective was to recover Bout. The arms dealer had been arrested in Thailand in March 2008 and extradited to the US in November 2010.
Shortly thereafter, US diplomats in Russia said they had made an “important” proposal to the Russian authorities that also included several alternatives in the event of no agreement. The Reuters agency then revealed that this proposal included the release of Griner and Whelan. In his appearance, Biden has reiterated that he remains committed to Whelan’s release.