Brittney Griner, the American basketball star, was set to go home on Thursday after being released from a Russian jail in exchange for Viktor Bout, the notorious arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.”
In an early morning speech to the country, President Joe Biden announced Griner’s release, and Moscow confirmed she had been traded in Abu Dhabi for Bout, who was serving a 25-year jail sentence in the United States.
“She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” the president said, also mentioning that he had a conversation with Griner, saying she was in “good spirits” following what Biden described as a “terrible ordeal.”
Another American detained in Russia, Paul Whelan, a former US Marine imprisoned in Russia in 2018 and accused of spying, was not included in the agreement, and the US president committed to continuing his efforts to release him.
“Sadly, Russia is treating Paul’s case different than Brittney’s and even though we have not secured Paul’s release we will never give up,” Biden said.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA champion, and LGBT trailblazer, was arrested in February at a Moscow airport amid rising tensions over Ukraine.
She was accused in August of possessing vape cartridges containing a minor amount of cannabis oil and sentenced to nine years in jail.
The president said Griner would need time to recover from “needless trauma” following being “wrongfully detained” and held in Russia’s IK-2 penal colony. The said colony is located in the town of Yavas in the central region of Mordovia.
Biden made the announcement at the White House while standing next to Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions,” Cherelle Griner said. She also described her wife’s ordeal in Russia as “one of the darkest moments of my life.”
Biden publicly thanked the UAE for helping “facilitate” Griner’s release, and the UAE released a joint statement with Saudi Arabia stating it was the result of “mediation efforts” by the two Arab presidents.
According to the statement, Griner and Bout were transported to Abu Dhabi on private flights and exchanged “in the presence of specialists from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.”
Biden stated that Griner would be back in the United States within 24 hours.