US basketball star Brittney Griner was freed in a prisoner swap with Russia on Thursday, a diplomatic breakthrough in Moscow’s more than nine-month war with Ukraine.
Griner was released in exchange for Viktor Bout, an imprisoned Russian arms dealer who was serving a 25-year sentence in the US.
Speaking alongside Griner’s wife, Cherelle, at the Oval Office, US president Joe Biden announced the WNBA player’s release and said she would be back in the US the next day.
“She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held in intolerable circumstances,” Biden said.
A visibly jubilant Cherelle Griner said her wife’s imprisonment had been “one of the darkest moments of my life”. She thanked the Biden administration for its assistance in bringing her home. “Today, my family is whole,” she said.
Griner was arrested at a Russian airport in February for carrying vaping cartridges containing hashish oil. She was sentenced to a nine-year prison term.
American officials have been working for months to secure her release, and over the summer floated a “substantial offer” to swap Griner and Paul Whelan, a former Marine who has been in Russian custody since 2018, with Bout.
Those talks stalled as Russia also demanded the release of Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel from Russia’s domestic spy agency who was convicted of murder in Germany last year.
In recent weeks, however, the discussions were said to have gathered steam again and had become focused on a one-for-one trade. Administration officials said they briefed Whelan’s family on the swap of Griner and Bout, and that a senior US official also discussed the matter with Whelan, who remains imprisoned.
Bout is a notorious arms dealer whose exploits inspired the 2005 film Lord of War. He was serving a 25-year term for conspiring to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.
Griner on Thursday was transferred from a penal colony to Moscow before being flown to the United Arab Emirates, where she was met by US special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens.
Administration officials said Griner was in good spirits upon arrival in the UAE, which Washington thanked for its role in helping to negotiate the deal. The officials added that other countries had also raised Griner’s plight with Russian officials, but declined to name them.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE said in a joint statement that UAE president Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman led mediation efforts.
“In the course of getting to this happy result . . . we have and I am sure we will continue to lean on partners around the world to work this through with us,” a senior US official said.
A senior Biden administration official said it became clear in recent weeks that the president faced a choice between “bringing Brittney Griner home right now or bringing no Americans home from Russia right now”.
The exchange of Griner for Bout was “successfully completed at Abu Dhabi airport”, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday.
It said the US had for a long time “categorically refused” to consider exchanging Bout. “Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to work actively to secure the release of our compatriot,” it said.
Bout and Griner were both pardoned before they were exchanged in Abu Dhabi, according to an official cited by the Russian state-run news agency Tass.
“The exchange of Victor Bout for the American basketball player Griner can truly be called a . . . New Year’s present,” said Tatiana Moskalkova, the Russian government’s high commissioner for human rights.
“A feeling of joy, I think, overwhelms everyone who has followed the fate of this absolutely wonderful man,” Moskalkova said, referring to Bout, adding that he had “fallen victim to American insinuations”.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver on Thursday said: “Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she 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.”
Lindsay Colas, Griner’s agent and executive vice-president at Wasserman, added: “Today, we are breathing a deep sigh of relief. Brittney Griner is on her way home.”
Additional reporting by Sara Germano
Who is Viktor Bout?
Viktor Bout, a former Soviet military officer with possible ties to the KGB, built a global business organisation out of the ruins of the former Soviet Union, buying Soviet military transport aircraft and, according to several UN reports, delivering weapons from desperate suppliers in the former Soviet bloc to Africa and other conflict zones.
Born in Dushanbe, now the capital of Tajikistan, Bout has been accused of supplying weapons to armed groups in Liberia, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. He was arrested in Bangkok in 2008 and extradited to the US two years later, following a complex sting operation conducted by US agents who caught him conspiring to sell millions of dollars’ worth of weapons.
Attorneys for the US described Bout as “international arms trafficking enemy number one” and accused him of “arming some of the most violent conflicts around the globe”.
In 2012 he was sentenced to 25 years in prison after a conviction on four counts of conspiracy, including to kill US nationals, export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide support for terrorist organisations.