Brittney Griner, the US basketball player who had been detained in Russia on drug charges since February, is flying back home after she was released in exchange for convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout.
President Joe Biden said Griner was safe and is expected to arrive in the United States Friday on a plane from the United Arab Emirates.
Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens is accompanying Brittney back to the United States.
Biden said it took painstaking and intense negotiations by the hardworking public servants across his administration who worked tirelessly to secure her release.
He also thanked the UAE for helping facilitate Griner’s return, where she landed from Russia.
Biden said he spoke with Brittney Griner standing together with her wife Cherelle in the Oval Office Thursday, and that the two-time Olympic Gold medalist 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, and she deserves space, privacy, and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained,” he added.
Biden said his administration has not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia for many years. “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,” he told reporters.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine, was arrested in 2018 on accusation of spying. He received a 16-year prison sentence with the possibility of time in a labor camp.
Washington in July had offered to release Viktor Bout in exchange for Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.
Dubbed the merchant of death, Viktor Bout has been serving a 25-year jail term on charges of arming a Colombian rebel group to kill Americans.
Convicted in 2011, Bout has been in U.S. detention for 12 years.
President Biden signed the order for Bout’s release, commuting his 25-year jail term, in a direct swap for Griner.
Griner, who plays center for the three-time WNBA Champion Phoenix Mercury, was detained in a Moscow airport in February on allegations that cartridges containing hashish oil had been found in her luggage. She had been entering the country to play for the Russian women’s professional basketball team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, in the Russian Premier League during the WNBA off-season.
31-year-old Griner was a member of the U.S. women’s basketball team that won Olympic gold medal in 2016 and 2020.
In August, a Russian court sentenced her to nine years in prison on charges of drug smuggling. She has been held at a penal colony in a remote part of Russia since then.
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