WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian prison on Thursday after being exchanged for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. Griner, who was
President Joseph Biden approved Bout’s release and commuted the remainder of his 25-year prison sentence, according to media reports. He had already served 10 of the sentence for conspiracy, arms dealing and terrorism-related convictions.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,”
“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the prisoner exchange, according to a report from the Associated Press. Officials said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the swap had taken place in Abu Dhabi and that Bout, who is known as the Merchant of Death, had been flown home to Russia.
Biden reportedly spoke with Griner while she was at the airport in Abu Dhabi. Griner is expected to be back on U.S. soil within 24 hours, according to administration officials, who added that the WNBA star would be offered specialized medical and counseling services once she returns home.
Griner Released After Pleading Guilty in July
In July, Griner pleaded guilty to charges of bringing cannabis vape cartridges into Russia, although she said she did not know they were in her luggage and denied any intent to break the law. She was convicted of the charges the following month, and an appeal failed to secure her release. She was sentenced to more than nine years in prison, and in November the two-time Olympic champion was moved to a penal colony to serve out her sentence.
The Biden administration extended a proposal to Russian authorities in July, offering to exchange Bout for Griner and Whelan. Both Russian and U.S. authorities had expressed optimism about the potential for a deal over the past several weeks after months of strained negotiations, according to media reports. In early November, the president said that he hoped the Russians would continue negotiations after the U.S. midterm elections.
The president’s commutation of Bout’s sentence does not improve the reputation of the convicted arms dealer in the eyes of the U.S. Justice Department, an unnamed U.S. government official told The Washington Post.
“Nothing can remove the stigma of his guilty conviction in the U.S. justice system where I would emphasize he received due process of law, access to counsel and a whole host of other rights and protections that Brittney was appallingly denied in the sham proceedings she faced in Russia,”
U.S. officials said that they did not see a clear path to securing Whelan’s release because Russian authorities are treating his espionage case differently than Griner’s cannabis conviction.
“We didn’t want to lose the opportunity today to secure the release of one of them,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Whelan’s brother David said in a statement that he was “so glad” for Griner’s release but noted he is also disappointed for his family. He credited the Biden Administration with giving his family advance notice of the Griner exchange and said he did not fault officials for securing her release.
“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.
Industry professionals, including celebrity athletes like Ricky Williams, shared their thoughts on the release. Williams is a former NFL running back who now is the founder of cannabis brand
Griner is a seven-time WNBA All-Star center and has played for the Phoenix Mercury since 2013, including the team’s 2014 league championship squad. She has also won the Olympic gold medal with the U.S. women’s basketball team twice.
Griner has played seven seasons of professional basketball in Russia during the winter, a common practice among WNBA players. She earns about $1 million per season to play in Russia, about four times the salary she earns playing for Phoenix. On January 29, Griner played her most recent game with her team UMMC Ekaterinburg before the Russian league took a two-week break for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments. She was arrested about two weeks later upon her return to Russia.