Russia has agreed to release American basketball star Brittney Griner from custody on Thursday after a prisoner exchange with convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
According to President Joe Biden, Griner is now in the custody of U.S. officials. He tweeted a photo of him and Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, in the Oval Office on Thursday morning. Griner’s family has also been informed of the swap, a source familiar with the negotiations told CNN.
“Moments ago, I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden tweeted.
According to the Associated Press, the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the prisoner swap, saying that the exchange occurred in Abu Dhabi, UAE, with Bout transported to Russia and Griner returning home to the U.S.
The ultimate release of Griner was a priority for the Biden Administration, but negotiations during the height of Russia’s war in Ukraine strained and complicated diplomatic talks. Griner’s arrest in February for carrying a THC-infused vape cartridge in her luggage made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad.
As a WNBA star, two-time gold medalist, and openly gay Black woman detained in a country where the government is hostile to the LGBTQ community contributed to the story gaining international attention.
Griner was convicted and subsequently sent to a penal colony after pleading guilty in July to possession of a marijuana-based vape pen found in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Griner had acknowledged during the trial she possessed the vape pen but had no criminal intent.
Biden appeared in a special live report at 8:30 a.m. ET with Vice President Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Cherelle Griner in the Roosevelt Room, confirming Griner would be back in the U.S. within 24 hours.
“These past few months have been hell for Brittney,” the president said. “I am glad to say Brittney is in good spirits.”
Biden acknowledged that Griner wrote to him in July but did not ask him for special treatment. He noted that in her letter, she stated, “Please don’t forget about the other American detainees and me.”
Biden also commented about the status of Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine convicted of espionage after Russian authorities alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison and is currently in a penal colony in Mordovia.
The president noted that Whelan’s detainment is “not a choice.” He said, “Due to illegitimate reasons, Paul’s case has been treated differently than Brittney’s.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, told reporters “the last nine months you have been privy to one of the darkest moments of my life.” She also expressed gratitude to the Biden administration and those involved in negotiating Griner’s release.
“BG [Brittney Griner] and I will remain committed to getting every American home,” Cherelle said. “All I can do is smile.”
The U.S. prisoner exchanged for Griner is Victor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer also known as the “Merchant of Death.” He was convicted in 2011 on four counts in federal court, including conspiring to kill U.S. citizens.
Prosecutors also alleged he agreed to sell antiaircraft weapons to drug enforcement informants who posed as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, said the New York Times.