By Terrance Turner
March 5, 2022 (updated Aug. 4, 2022, Dec. 8)
WNBA star Brittney Griner is free.
Griner was released Thursday in a one-for-one prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout. CBS News was the first to report the swap.
“She’s safe. She’s on a plane; she’s on her way home,” President Joe Biden said at the White House, announcing the exchange. “After months of being unjustly detained in Russia — held under intolerable circumstances — Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones. And she should have been there all along. This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release.”
Biden thanked everyone who helped secure Griner’s freedom. “It took painstaking and intense negotiations, and I wanna thank all the hardworking public servants across my administration who worked tirelessly to secure her release.” He also thanked “the UAE for helping us facilitate Brittney’s return, ’cause that’s where she landed.”
Biden said he spoke to Griner by phone from the Oval Office. Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken joined Biden there. Also at the White House: Griner’s wife Cherrelle. She also spoke at the White House today.
Photo from Yahoo! News
Mrs. Griner Speaks
After Biden concluded his remarks, Mrs. Griner took the podium. “So over the last nine months, you all have been so privy to one of the darkest moments of my life. And so today, I am just standing here overwhelmed with emotions. But the most important emotion I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration,” she began.
This wasn’t an easy process. Mrs. Griner said as much: “There’s been so many hands involved. And so I’d like to take a moment to just specifically mention a few.” She thanked Harris and Blinken. She thanked Jake Sullivan and Gov. Richardson. And she acknowledged members of the Hostage Envoy’s Office and National Security Council.
However, she also mentioned families like hers. “Today, my family is whole. But as you all are aware, there’s so many other families who aren’t whole.” She then cited Paul Whelan, another American who remains jailed in Russia. He wasn’t included in the swap centered around Griner.
Whelan, a former US Marine, was in Moscow for a friend’s wedding when he was arrested on espionage charges in 2018. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison two years later, per CNN. The White House says these charges are false. This month marks four years since Whelan went into custody.
The exchange agreement was negotiated with Moscow in recent weeks. Biden gave it final approval within just the last week, according to sources familiar with the deal. The swap took place in the United Arab Emirates, per a U.S. official. (The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed this. They say the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi. There’s now video:
The United States exchanged Griner for Bout, a notorious arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death”. Bout, most recently held at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois, was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency in Thailand following a sting operation in 2008. He was convicted of conspiring to kill Americans and began his 25-year sentence a decade ago. Biden has signed an order reducing the sentence.
In August, Griner was found guilty on charges of attempting to smuggle illegal narcotics into Russia. A Russian court sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony, according to her lawyers.
The verdict was virtually preordained in a Russian court system with a 99% conviction rate. And officials in Moscow had said that a verdict was a necessary precondition for a possible exchange. The United States and Russia have been discussing a prisoner exchange that would bring Griner back to the U.S.
President Biden called the sentence “one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
In February, Russian authorities detained Griner at an airport near Moscow after allegedly finding hashish oil in her luggage. According to the New York Times, the Russian Federal Customs Service said in March that its officials detained an American basketball player after finding vape cartridges containing hash oil (derived from cannabis) in her luggage. (The incident occurred at the Sheremetyevo airport, located 18 miles northwest of Moscow in the town of Khimki, Moscow Oblast.)
The Customs Service did not identify the player, but said in a statement that she had won 2 Olympic gold medals with the United States. The Russian news agency TASS identified her as WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner (who won gold medals with the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team in 2016 and 2021).
Griner was likely overseas for work. “Many W.N.B.A. players compete in Russia, where salaries are more lucrative, during the American league’s off-season,” the Times stated. “Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years.” (Writer Charlotte Clymer noted that Griner makes more overseas than in the U.S., where WNBA max salary is less than 1/3 of NBA’s.)
Dangerous International Travel
The Customs Service released a video of a masked traveler (presumably Griner) going through security. But the Service stated that the security screening occurred in February, sparking concerns that Griner may have been in Russian custody for weeks.
According to ESPN, the State Department issued a “do not travel” advisory for Russia on Jan. 23 that warned Americans against traveling there, because of “the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens, the embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, COVID-19 and related entry restrictions […] and the arbitrary enforcement of local law.” They issued another advisory nine days after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.
War in Ukraine
This case takes place across a backdrop of international upheaval and war. Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 23, after weeks of tensions spurred partly by the prospect of Ukraine’s potential membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. Air strikes were conducted. Russia fired over 400 missiles. Russian troops and tanks entered the country on three fronts: from Belarus in the north, from the east of Ukraine, and from the south.
The result was massive displacement, a humanitarian crisis, and global sanctions and condemnation of Russia’s actions — an environment that Griner found herself caught in the crosshairs of.