Phoenix Mercury center and WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner has been released from a Russian penal colony and is in United States custody after a prisoner exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout, President Joe Biden confirmed Thursday morning.
Senior administration officials said Griner had been released from the penal colony within the last 48 hours and taken to Moscow before flying to the United Arab Emirates and is currently on her way back to the United States.
In a speech at the White House, Biden said the exchange had been in the works for the past two weeks, and that he had given the final go-ahead. He added that he had spoken with Griner on the phone. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, was at the White House on Thursday.
Biden said the “past few months have been hell for Brittney” but that she is in good spirits.
The deal is the second prisoner exchange with Russia in eight months. Biden’s administration had faced increasing pressure to get Griner released, and in November after the midterms, Biden said he hoped Russian President Vladimir Putin would talk more seriously about a prisoner exchange.
Biden has a fraught relationship with Putin that has become more volatile during the war in Ukraine, with Biden having called Putin a war criminal and a “pure thug” who is waging an immoral war against the people of Ukraine.
‘We never forgot about Brittney,’ Biden said. ‘I’m glad to be able to say Brittney is in good spirits. She’s relieved to finally be heading home, and the fact remains that she’s lost months of her life, experienced a needless trauma. She deserves space, privacy and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained.
‘She wrote to me back in July. She didn’t ask for special treatment, even though we’d been working on her release from day one. She requested, a simple quote, ‘Please don’t forget about me and the other American detainees,’ ‘ Biden added.
Biden said the United States is still working to bring home Paul Whelan, who has been jailed in Russia since 2018 on charges of espionage.
‘While we celebrate Brittney’s homecoming, we remain committed to seeing Paul Whelan released. We will not relent in our efforts until Paul is home with family. We will not stop working to bring home every U.S. citizen wrongfully detained,’ Vice President Kamala Harris said on social media.
Griner will receive a full medical and mental check-up, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
Griner smiled as she received the news that she was going home after being detained in Russia for 294 days. Her expression was one of happiness and relief.
Footage from Russian State media showed Griner boarding a plane at Al Bateen Executive Airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, during the prisoner exchange. She said she ‘didn’t know where’ she was headed, but was ‘happy’ to be out of a Russian penal colony.
Some faces of Russian officials were blurred during the exchange for Bout.
Griner, an eight-time WNBA all-star center and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was convicted Aug. 4 and sentenced to nine years in prison after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Griner admitted she had the canisters in her luggage but testified she had inadvertently packed them in haste and that she had no criminal intent.
SPORTS NEWSLETTER: Follow our sports newsletter for daily updates
The U.S. government had repeatedly said Griner, 31, was wrongfully detained.
Bout, 55, nicknamed the ‘Merchant of Death,’ is a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel who, according to U.S. officials, was trying to sell weapons to be used against Americans. He was serving a 25-year sentence at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois, and was set to be released in August 2029, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Whelan, a former Marine and corporate security executive, was detained in Russia in December 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. U.S. officials characterized the espionage charges against Whelan as ‘bogus,’ and it was requested that Whelan be released along with Griner, but that was rejected.
Senior administration officials said Thursday that there was only one option for Griner’s release and that was a 1-for-1 exchange for Bout as Russia insisted that was the only way Griner would be released from their custody.
‘It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom,’ Whelan’s brother, David, said in an email to the media on Thursday. ‘As I have often remarked, Brittney’s and Paul’s cases were never really intertwined. It has always been a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other.
‘The sentiments I shared in April about Trevor (Reed) are unchanged: this is the event we wish for so much for our own family. She will be reunited with her family. Brittney is free. And Paul is still a hostage.’
Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said it became clear in recent weeks that Russia would not negotiate in good faith regarding Whelan’s release.
‘It was either Brittney or no one at all,’ Jean-Pierre said. ‘We’re not going to apologize for that.’
On ESPN’s ‘First Take’ Thursday morning, South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, who has talked daily on her social media accounts about Griner’s situation, said the news of Griner’s release moved her to tears.
“I cried,” Staley said. “…This is the moment we’ve all been praying for. I know her heart is for the voiceless, I think her voice will be as strong as strong can be … when she speaks out, when she advocates for those who have been in the position she’s been in, that we continue to wrap our arms around her, to make sure she has the strength to continue to endure the fight that’s ahead of her — because there’s a fight.’
Griner has played for the Mercury for nine seasons, after she was drafted No. 1 overall in the 2013 WNBA draft following a dominant college career at Baylor. She is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, a three-time first-team All-WNBA selection and the league’s career leader in blocks per game.
The Mercury and Suns said in a joint statement Thursday that their emotions were of ‘joyous celebration, deep gratitude, grief for the time lost and sincere hope for all families still awaiting the return of a loved one.’
Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon, who played in Russia for seven years, said on ESPN that with Griner’s return “our whole WNBA family, it’s a sisterhood” is complete again.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the league is thrilled that Griner is on her way home to her family and friends. ‘We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances,’ Silver said.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert spoke of Griner’s courage and dignity in her statement.
“There has not been a day over the past ten months where we all haven’t had Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy and relief knowing that she will soon be reunited with her family, the WNBA player community, and her friends,’ Engelbert said. ‘BG has shown extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of enormous adversity.’
Cherelle Griner said she was ‘overwhelmed with emotions’ after learning her wife would be released from a Russian prison and thanked Vice President Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National security adviser Jake Sullivan for their efforts.
‘So 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, but the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration,’ Cherelle Griner said at the White House. ‘It’s a happy day for me and my family.’
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said she’d heard over the last week that a swap for Griner might come to fruition soon, but she hesitated to get too excited until it was a done deal. When she heard the news early Thursday morning, the usually stoic commissioner got choked up.
“I can’t tell you what this means to the whole WNBA community to have her home safely,” Engelbert said, adding that while the league wants to respect Griner’s privacy and allow her time to recover from the 10-month ordeal, she knows “players really want to see her, they’ll fly anywhere to see her.”
– Lindsay Schnell