WNBA star Brittney Griner has been released from a Russian prison, President Joe Biden confirmed Thursday.
In exchange for her release, the U.S. government will reportedly send convicted international arms dealer Viktor Bout back to Russia, according to CBS News. Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death," was sentenced to 25 years in prison after being convicted of, among other things, conspiracy to kill Americans. Retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who is also currently imprisoned in Russia for the past four years on espionage charges, is reportedly not part of the prisoner swap.
"Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along," Biden said, standing beside Griner's wife, Cherelle, on Thursday morning.
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the exchange took place at Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates.
Footage of the exchange was released, and shows Griner and Bout walking past each other.
Griner's hair appears to be cut short in the video. That was reportedly her decision, according to T.J. Quinn of ESPN.
Griner will then be flown to a military medical facility in San Antonio for health evaluation, according to NBC News.
This news comes after months of back-and-forth negotiations between the U.S. and Russia following Griner's arrest in February after officials say they found hash oil in her luggage. She pleaded and was found guilty of drug smuggling charges and was sentenced to nine years. Griner was sent to a penal colony in November, but now, she will return home in time for Christmas.
Griner's timeline from arrest to imprisonment to release
In February, Griner flew to Moscow, where she plays professionally during the WNBA's offseason. Upon arrival, Russian customs officials allegedly found .702 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage. That’s less than the weight of a pen cap or a stick of gum, yet prosecutors alleged it was enough to meet the “significant amount” threshold under Russian law and asked the judge to sentence Griner to nine and a half years in prison.
By May, the U.S. government had classified Griner as "wrongfully detained," a classification that allows for the prisoner swap process to begin.
In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the U.S. had offered Russia a “substantial proposal” aimed at securing the release of Griner and Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. The offer was believed to be a 2-for-1 trade for Bout, who for years had been atop the Kremlin’s prisoner exchange wish list.
While Blinken spoke directly to Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and urged him to take the deal, Russia showed no signs of accepting. Last month, Biden expressed hope that Russian president Vladimir Putin would “be willing to talk more seriously” about an exchange for Griner becasue U.S. midterm elections were over, and Russia wouldn’t be delivering Biden a timely political win.
It was always believed that any swap would include both Griner and Whelan, whom the United States has also classified as "wrongfully detained."
“We have not forgotten about Paul Whelan," Biden said Thursday. "This was not a choice of which American to bring home.
"... Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's, and while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up."
Biden also stated that Whelan's family was informed prior to Griner's release that Whelan would not be part of the exchange.
“I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up," Whelan said in a phone interview with CNN from the penal colony where he is being held in a remote part of Russia. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
"It's just a happy day for me and my family," Cherelle Griner said. "I'm gonna smile right now."
Griner's family thanks Joe Biden, supporters
Griner's family released a statement late Thursday night thanking Biden and everyone else involved in securing her release, as well as their supporters. They also called for Whelan's release:
We would like to extend our sincere gratitude to President Biden and his administration for the tireless work they did to bring Brittney home. We would also like to extend a special thank you to Governor Richardson and Mickey Bergman of the Richardson Center for their work, as well as remaining in constant communication with us.
We sincerely thank you all for the kind words, thoughts and prayers - including Paul and the Whelan family who have been generous with their support for Brittney and our family during what we know is a heartbreaking time. We pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans.
We ask that you respect our privacy as we embark on this road to healing.
The Griner Family
WNBA and NBA statements on Griner's release
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA commissioner Adam Silver released statements following Griner's return to U.S. custody.
"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," Engelbert wrote, "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."
"Brittney has had to endure an unimaginalbe situation and we're thrilled she is on her way home to her family and friends," Silver wrote. "We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney's unjust circumstances."
The Players Association for the WNBA and NBA also released statements:
Among other displays of support, the WNBA All-Star game shed a spotlight on her trial, while the Connecticut Sun and Phoenix Mercury, Griner's own team, had an emotional tribute before their late-season match in August. Steph Curry took time out of the Golden State Warriors ring ceremony in October to wish Griner a happy birthday and remind fans of her imprisonment.
All those efforts led to this day, where Griner is officially on her way home after 294 days.
— Jeff Eisenberg contributed to this story