Metro Weekly

Brittney Griner Released from Russia as Part of Prisoner Swap

In exchange for the WNBA star's release from a Russian penal colony, the United States will return arms dealer Viktor Bout to Russia.

Brittney Griner, Viktor Bout – Photos: Wikicommons

WNBA star Brittney Griner, one of the country’s more prominent lesbian athletes, has been released from a Russian penal colony as part of a prisoner swap negotiated by the Biden administration, according to a senior administration official.

President Joe Biden signed off on the trade, which took place in the United Arab Emirates.

In exchange for Griner’s release, the United States will return arms dealer Viktor Bout to Russia.

Bout, known as “the Merchant of Death,” served 11 years of a 25-year sentence for attempting to sell surface-to-air missiles and armor-piercing rocket launchers to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent posing as a representative of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an anti-government guerrilla group. He was convicted of conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organization and conspiring to kill Americans, based on the understanding that FARC sought to use the weapons in question against U.S. forces in Colombia.

The Biden administration had hoped to also negotiate the release of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine and American corporate security executive who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after being accused of spying on the Russian government, but was unable to reach a final deal.

According to NBC News, people familiar with the negotiations say the Russians refused to release Whelan without getting a Russian spy in return, but the United States says it does not have any Russian spies currently in custody to swap for Whelan, leading to a stalemate.

Griner, 32, was detained in Russia in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after authorities claimed they found vape cartridges with traces of cannabis oil in her luggage. She was accused of attempting to smuggle drugs into Russia and later convicted as part of what President Biden called a “show trial,” earning a nine-year prison sentence in a Russian penal colony.

Griner, a two-time Olympian and seven-time All-Star player who is the center for the Phoenix Mercury, had traveled to Russia to play for the UMMC Ekaterinburg team — a common practice among WNBA players, who can earn extra money by playing abroad in the off-season, due to the relatively paltry salaries that female professional basketball players earn in the United States compared to other athletes due to a variety of factors.

But after her arrest, Griner soon became a pawn in a larger geopolitical struggle between Russia and the United States. The two countries have long been adversaries, but relations became even more frayed after the United States condemned Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and began providing military support to the Ukrainian government.

Some have speculated that Russia sought to embarrass the United States in retaliation for its stance on Ukraine by detaining American citizens living abroad in Russia, and lucked into finding a high-profile detainee in Griner. 

During her trial, Griner pleaded guilty but said she had no criminal intent, and claimed that the vape cartridges had been packed inadvertently as she hurriedly prepared for her flight. While the United States was clear that it sought to exchange Griner as part of a prisoner swap, the Russian government refused to negotiate until after the WNBA star was convicted.

Griner’s release is the second publicly known U.S. prisoner swap with Russia since the latter’s invasion of Ukraine in February. American Trevor Reed, a former Marine detained for allegedly attacking a Russian police officer after a drunken night out, was freed in April as part of a prisoner exchange that saw Biden commute the sentence of a prominent Russian drug trafficker.

The Biden administration faced great pressure to arrange a similar deal ensuring Griner’s release, with celebrities, especially from the sports world, lobbying for her return and some criticizing the administration for not acting swiftly enough to cut a deal with the Russians.

Speaking during a news conference at the White House on Thursday morning, President Biden, appearing alongside Griner’s wife, Cherelle, hailed the WNBA star’s release as “good news,” noting that Griner was on a plane back to the United States from the United Arab Emirates.

“Moments ago, I spoke with Britney Griner. She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said. “After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Britney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones. And she should have been there all along.

“People all across the country have learned about Brittney’s story, advocated for her release, stood with her throughout this terrible ordeal,” Biden continued. “And I know that support meant a lot to her family. I’m glad to be able to say that Brittney’s in good spirits. She’s relieved to finally be heading home. And the fact remains that she’s lost months of her life, experienced needless trauma. She deserves space, privacy, and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained.”

Biden praised Griner for her strength and patience, noting that she “endured mistreatment to show attitude and a show trial in Russia with characteristic grit and incredible dignity,” saying she “represents the best about America,” while also vowing to keep working to release other Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, including Whelan. 

“I don’t want any Americans wrongfully detained,” Biden said. “Our administration has now brought home dozens of Americans who are wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad, many of whom had been held since before I took office. Today, we also remember the other Americans that are being held hostage and wrongfully detained in Russia or anywhere else in the world. Reuniting this Americans with their loved ones remains a priority for my administration. … It’s my job as president of the United States to make the hard call to protect American citizens everywhere in the world, anywhere in the world. And I’m proud that today we had made one more family whole again.”

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