WNBA star Brittney Griner freed in US-Russia prisoner swap
President Biden on Thursday announced the U.S. had secured the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner from Russia, nearly 10 months after she was detained there.
“After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should’ve been there all along,” Biden said from the Roosevelt Room.
Biden said Griner is in “good spirits,” and he thanked the United Arab Emirates for their help in facilitating her release. He said he expected her to be back in the U.S. in the next 24 hours.
The president said he spoke to Griner over the phone. He was joined for the call by Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, as well as Vice President Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
U.S. officials said early Thursday they’d secured Griner’s release roughly 300 days after she was first detained in Russia for bringing vape cartridges with hashish oil into the country. Biden administration officials have worked since to bring Griner, a star player on the Phoenix Mercury and an Olympic gold medalist, back home through a prisoner swap or other means.
Griner in August was sentenced to serve nine years in prison and had been recently transferred to a penal colony.
Biden did not detail the specifics of Griner’s release, but she was reportedly part of a one-for-one prisoner swap for Viktor Bout, an arms dealer sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison for various charges related to trafficking weapons and conspiring to kill Americans.
Cherelle Griner at the White House thanked the president and the organizations who helped her during her wife’s imprisonment.
“Today my family is whole, but as you all are aware, there are so many families that are not whole,” she said, adding that she and her wife will remain committed to helping other families, including Paul Whelan’s.
“Today’s just a happy day for me and my family so I’m going to smile right now. Thank you,” she said.
Biden faced significant pressure to secure Brittney Griner’s release. Griner is an accomplished athlete and a Black and gay woman, and millions of Americans followed updates on her case as she went through what Biden called a “show trial.”
The agreement that led to Griner’s release is likely to draw some criticism given the U.S. is releasing a man convicted of selling weapons to terrorists, and experts have expressed concerns that agreeing to prisoner swaps may increase the likelihood Americans abroad are abducted if foreign nations believe they can use them as leverage.
Additionally, Biden was unable to secure the release of Whelan, who has been held in Russia since 2018 on spying charges that he vehemently denies. He has been sentenced to 16 years in prison.
Biden acknowledged Whelan’s family likely has “mixed feelings” about seeing Griner’s release while Whelan remains imprisoned. But he vowed to continue pushing for his return to the United States.
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case different than Brittney’s,” Biden said. “And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
American Marc Fogel is also imprisoned in Russia, and State Department officials have said they will pursue his release on humanitarian grounds but have not applied the determination that the Pennsylvania native is unjustly detained or being held for political purposes.
Updated at 9 a.m.