WNBA player Brittney Griner has been released from Russian custody as part of a prisoner swap with the U.S., a senior Biden administration official said.
President Joe Biden reportedly signed off on the trade, which took place in the United Arab Emirates. He is expected to comment on her release later this morning.
Griner was exchanged for arms dealer Viktor Bout, who has served 11 years of a 25-year sentence in the U.S. The Biden administration originally wanted to get both Griner and corporate security director Paul Whelan out of Russian custody in exchange for Bout, but they only got Griner. Whelan is currently serving a 16-year sentence in Russia for allegedly spying.
Griner has been in Russian custody since February, when she was arrested for marijuana possession at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. She pled guilty but said in court that she accidentally packed the two vape cartridges before her flight. Her legal team also offered written statements saying her cannabis was prescribed to treat her chronic pain.
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A Russian court sentenced her to nine years in prison. Her trial has been regarded by many observers as an attack on the U.S. for its opposition to the invasion of Ukraine. The ruling wasn’t surprising to many since defendants rarely get acquitted in Russia.
Griner was transferred to a labor camp in Mordovia on November 4 that was described as “extremely difficult.”
“It’s a labor camp, so we’re talking about 16-hour days,” The Nation’s Dave Zirin said. “Beatings are common, racism and homophobia run rampant.”
Update: Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Griner’s wife Cherelle Griner have all released statements about her return home.
“Moments ago, standing together with her wife Cherelle in the Oval Office, I spoke with Brittney Griner,” Biden said. “She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home 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.”
He said “the past few months have been hell” for Griner and thanked administration officials who worked for her release.
Pelosi also issued a statement acknowledging her release from Russian custody.
“Congress and the Country are overjoyed to learn that, thanks to the committed and focused leadership of President Biden, Brittney Griner is finally free,” Pelosi said. “Today, our hearts are with her dear wife, Cherelle, and the entire Griner family as their beloved Brittney is safely on her way back to America and will be home for the holidays.”
“For nearly ten long months, Brittney Griner suffered unthinkable trauma as she was wrongfully imprisoned by the Russian government. Putin’s cruelty against Brittney – and his monstrous actions against Ukraine – are staggering reminders of his brazen contempt for human rights, human dignity, and the rule of law.”
“Over the last nine months, you all have been so privy to one of the darkest moments of my life,” Cherelle Griner said.
She said she is “overwhelmed with emotions, but the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration.”