LGBTQ groups celebrated the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner from a Russian penal colony as part of a prisoner swap negotiated by the Biden administration.
Griner, one of the most prominent lesbian athletes in the United States, was arrested in February after authorities at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport claimed they found vape cartridges with traces of cannabis oil in her luggage.
The 32-year-old 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 — which the U.S. government continues to insist was handed down in order to retaliate against the United States and its citizens for its denunciation of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine in February.
But on Thursday, Dec. 8, Griner was released by the Russians in exchange for the U.S. government releasing arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” back to his home country. Bout served 11 years of a 25-year sentence for attempting to sell surface-to-air missiles and armor-piercing rocket launchers to an undercover agent posing as a member of FARC, a Colombian guerrilla group who — at least, as far as Bout knew — planned to use the weapons against U.S. military personnel in Colombia.
The Biden administration hailed Griner’s release as a success, despite its inability to get the Russians to release Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine and security consultant who was convicted of spying and has been held in Russia since 2018 — due in part to the Russian government’s insistence that Whelan be swapped for a Russian spy, despite the U.S. government claiming they have no such people in custody.
Speaking at a news conference held at the White House, along with President Joe Biden, Griner’s wife, Cherelle, thanked the Biden administration and others, including former New Mexico Governor and U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson, for their work to negotiate a deal under which Griner could be released.
“Over the last nine months, you all have been so privy to one of the darkest moments of my life. And so today, I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions,” Cherelle Griner said.
“Today my family is whole. But as you all are aware, there’s so many other families who are not whole. And so BG [Griner] is not here to say this, but I will gladly speak on her behalf and say that BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today,” she added, referring to Whelan. “As we celebrate by going home, we do understand that there are still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing tremendously their loved ones.”
LGBTQ groups expressed relief at Griner’s release.
“From day one, our hearts have been with Brittney Griner, her wife Cherelle, her family and countless fans. So many raised their voices to call for her return, a movement to #freeBG that included the WNBA, the LGBTQ community around the world and millions of fans and others,” Kierra Johnson, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said in a statement.
“Number 42 [Griner’s jersey number on the Phoenix Mercury] has been hanging on my wall as a daily reminder of the violence and discrimination Black people, LGBTQ folks and women regularly endure in this country and around the world,” added Johnson. “After being held for months in a Russian prison on drug charges, we are overjoyed and relieved she has been released today in a one-for-one prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout. We thank President Biden and all those who relentlessly negotiated and advocated for her release and return to her family. Now her jersey will be a celebration and reminder of the resilience of our people and the power of our community.”
Victoria Kirby York, the director of public policy and programs at the National Black Justice Coalition, a Black LGBTQ civil rights organization, welcomed the WNBA All-Star center home and thanked the Biden administration for its efforts to get her released.
“Make no mistake, Griner was detained in Russia on trumped up charges and leveraged as a political prisoner because of her identity as an American. The fact that Griner was both Black and LGBTQ+ made her even more of a target – and the treatment that she faced in the Russian Court system even more horrific,” Kirby York said in a statement.
“Brittney is an icon not only to the Black LGBTQ+/same-gender-loving community, but to people around the world,” she added. “Now, she has also become a symbol of hope for the many other people who remain wrongfully detained abroad and the families who remain broken until their loved ones return home.”
Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD, celebrated Griner’s release.
“Britney Griner’s long awaited release is a relief for her wife, teammates, fans and all in the LGBTQ community who recognized the extreme danger she faced as an out gay Black woman detained in Putin’s Russia,” Ellis said in a statement. “Britney’s wife Cherelle never gave up fighting for her safe return, and President Biden and the State Department never wavered in their commitment to the Griners and the LGBTQ community on Britney’s behalf. We can’t wait to welcome Britney home.”
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