Updated Dec 9, 2022 - World

Brittney Griner released in prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer

Brittney Griner waits for the verdict inside a defendants' cage during a hearing in Khimki

Brittney Griner during a hearing in Khimki, Russia, outside Moscow on Aug. 4. Photo: Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

WNBA star Brittney Griner has been freed in a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia after nearly 10 months of incarceration, President Biden said Thursday.

Driving the news: The U.S. freed convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in an exchange for Griner that took place in the United Arab Emirates, according to a senior administration official. Russian media footage showed the pair briefly passing each other on the runway in Abu Dhabi.

A Twitter screenshot shows images of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris with Britney Griner's mother.
Photo: President Biden/Twitter
  • "Through multiple, multiple engagements, the Russians made clear that the only route to securing Brittney's return" was Bout's release, the official said.

Catch up quick: Griner was arrested in February after Russian authorities said they found a vape cartridge with hashish oil in her luggage.

The big picture: Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in late July that the U.S. had made a "substantial proposal" to the Kremlin to secure the release of Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan. Blinken said both were "wrongfully detained."

  • Reports suggested the Biden administration would be willing to exchange Bout, who was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., for Griner and Whelan's freedom.
  • The deal announced Thursday didn't include an exchange for Whelan, who's been held in Russia since 2018.
  • "The Russians were not willing to negotiate in good faith for the release of Paul Whelan at this time," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a news conference Thursday.

Of note: This is the second high-profile prisoner swap this year between Russia and the U.S. of the Biden administration. In April, Russia released former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who had been detained in Russia since 2019.

Between the lines: Moscow has treated Whelan's case differently than other Americans detained there because of his espionage conviction and was unwilling to agree to a deal that included him, the senior administration official said.

What they're saying: "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 have been there all along," Biden said in an address Thursday.

  • "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," he continued.
  • "She endured mistreatment and a show trial in Russia with characteristic grit and incredible dignity," Biden said.
  • "While we have not yet succeeded in securing [Whelan's] release, we are not giving up. We remain in close touch with Paul's family."

Cherelle Griner thanked Biden and his administration for their efforts to free her wife. "Today my family is whole," she said.

  • Griner's family released a statement extending their gratitude to the Biden administration and wishes for Whelan's release.

Meanwhile, Griner's WNBA team, Phoenix Mercury, released a joint statement with the men's team, the Phoenix Suns, praising Griner's release.

  • "Miraculously, mercifully, the count of days detained has ended at 294, and our friend, our sister is headed back home where she belongs," it read.
  • "The emotions of our organization, just like for our fans and so many across the world, are those of joyous celebration, deep gratitude, grief for the lost time, and sincere hope for all families still awaiting the return of a loved one."

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new details throughout.

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