Brittney Griner on Way Back to America After Prisoner Swap With Russia

RUSSIA-US-BASKETBALL-COURT-POLITICS - Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images
RUSSIA-US-BASKETBALL-COURT-POLITICS - Credit: POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who had been held in Russian prisons for 10 months on drug charges, was released from custody Thursday. Griner was released as part of a long-talked-about prisoner swap negotiated by the U.S. State Department for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

According to CBS News, the one-for-one exchange was approved by President Joe Biden within the past week. Details of the deal remain unclear, but CBS News reports that at least one concession was made by only agreeing to swap one American prisoner for one Russian. Previously, U.S. officials were in talks to include another imprisoned American, U.S. Marine Corps veteran and former security executive Paul Whelan, in any prison swap deal.

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“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,” the Griner family said in a statement to Rolling Stone.

“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.”

After her release, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, on the phone. And per standard procedure for freed U.S. prisoners, Griner was expected to undergo a medical evaluation before returning home.

“I spoke with Brittney Griner. She’s safe. She’s on a plane,” Biden said in a press address on Thursday. “She’s on her way home. After months of being unjustly detained in Russia and held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones — and she should have been there all along.”

Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, commented on Griner’s release, congratulating the WNBA star and her family while also lamenting about the failure to secure his brother’s release.

“There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home. 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 wrote, according to Fox News. “She will be reunited with her family.  Brittney is free. And Paul is still a hostage. But how many more times do I need to write that? Despite the possibility that there might be an exchange without Paul, our family is still devastated.  I can’t even fathom how Paul will feel when he learns. Paul has worked so hard to survive nearly 4 years of this injustice.”

Biden said on Thursday that he is determined to bring Whelan home. “This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” he said. “Sadly, for illegitimate reasons, Russia has treated Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we have not given up.”

Griner’s agent Lindsay Colas said in a statement Thursday, “Today, we are breathing a deep sigh of relief. Brittney Griner is on her way home. We are overwhelmed with gratitude to President Biden, Vice President Harris and the entire Biden-Harris Administration, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and the members of The White House National Security team, along with the entire Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs team at the U.S. Department of State, led by Roger Carstens and including Fletcher Schoen. In addition, we remain forever grateful to Governor Bill Richardson and Mickey Bergman from the Richardson Center, and BG’s tireless Russian legal team, Maria Blagovolina and Alex Boykov.”

Colas continued, “In equal measure, we are so thankful to the incredible community of advisors, athletes and advocates, led primarily, and as has come to be routine, by the players of the WNBA and their fearless Union, The WNBPA. Thank you also to BG’s teams, the Phoenix Mercury, USA Basketball, UMMC Ekaterinburg, the WNBA and the NBA… Also, to so many people around the world who raised their voices and stood with us – especially Black women, the LGBTQ+ community and civil rights leaders – thank you.”

“It’s through hardship that character is revealed, and over the last nine months, we have seen the best of so many. At the top of that list are BG and President Biden. Throughout this ordeal, BG has carried herself with courage, grace and grit; and President Biden made us a promise, and then kept his word and did what was necessary to bring her home. We are forever grateful for his follow-through on that commitment.”

Colas and the We Are BG team also asked President Biden to continue to try to bring Whelan home, as well as other Americans behind bars in foreign counties. “In return, our commitment to President Biden and to the families of Americans who are being held hostage and wrongfully detained – especially Elizabeth and David Whelan, on behalf of their brother Paul Whelan, who remains in Russia and whose continued detention weighs heavily on our hearts – is to continue our work in the movement to bring them home,” Colas wrote, adding that Griner and her family would have no further statement “at this time, or for the foreseeable future.”

Griner, who plays basketball in Russia during the WNBA offseason, was arrested by Russian authorities in February after customs officials found two cannabis vape cartridges in her carry-on luggage. The two-time Olympic gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges, but claimed she did not intend to bring the vape cartridges into Russia, stating that she packed them by mistake during frantic preparations for her trip. Maria Blagovolina, one of Griner’s lawyers in Russia, argued that the basketball star’s doctor-prescribed use of marijuana for chronic pain indicates she “may have used it for medical but not recreational purposes.”

In October, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison, and though she appealed the conviction, she lost. Just last month, the athlete was transferred to one of the harshest types of Russian penal colonies for women. Griner’s lawyer confirmed the transfer at the time, explaining that Griner was moved into one of the 35 high-security correctional institutions for women; on Nov. 17, Reuters reported that Griner has been sent to Female Penal Colony IK-2 in Yavas, 300 miles southeast of Moscow.

This story was updated at 4 p.m. EST to include Griner’s agent’s statement.

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