Officials have freed WNBA star Brittney Griner from a Russian penal colony in a prisoner swap that saw the release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to Russia’s foreign ministry.
In a statement, Russian officials said they exchanged Griner for Bout on Thursday at Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates. At a news conference on Thursday, Biden confirmed the swap had taken place.
“Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones,” the president said. “I’m glad to be able to say that Brittney’s in good spirits She’s relieved to finally be heading home.”
Update 7:24 a.m. EST Dec. 9: The Griner family has released a statement about her release and return to the U.S., The New York Times reported.
The statement reads:
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.
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.
We ask that you respect our privacy as we embark on this road to healing.
The Griner Family
-- Natalie Dreier, Cox Media Group National Content Desk
Update 5:32 a.m. EST Dec. 9: A plane believed to be carrying Brittney Griner has landed in San Antonio, Texas, according to The Associated Press.
Griner’s plane landed early Friday morning at Kelly Field at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
It was the same base where former Marine Trevor Reed landed after he was freed from a Russin prison earlier this year, The New York Times reported.
CNN reported that she was expected to be taken to a medical treatment facility, according to U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
The Defense Department has a program called Post Isolation Support Activities that help people who are detained in foreign countries acclimate to their usual lives.
The Brooke Army Medical Center, which is located at the San Antonio base, has been the facility where people who need to be debriefed or are in need of medical care are treated. The hospital helps people — military members and civilians — who have survived torture or other trauma, the Times reported.
-- Debbie Lord and Natalie Dreier, Cox Media Group National Content Desk
Update 10:22 p.m. EST Dec. 8: Brittney Griner’s family issued a statement Thursday, thanking President Joe Biden’s administration and the family of Paul Whelan for being “generous with their support” for the WNBA star during “what we know is a heartbreaking time.”
The family added that they were praying for Whelan and the “swift release and safe return of all wrongfully detained Americans.”
Griner was expected to land in San Antonio late Thursday, KSAT-TV reported. She will be taken to Brooke Army Medical Center after her arrival.
-- Bob D’Angelo, Cox Media Group National Content Desk
Original report: The president had earlier confirmed Griner’s release in a social media post, writing, “Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”
The deal reached by officials did not include the release of Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive who has been jailed in Russia on espionage charges since December 2018, according to The Associated Press. Authorities had said for months that they were working to secure the release of both Griner and Whelan.
On Thursday, Biden said that officials had not forgotten about Whelan and he promised his administration would continue work to bring him home.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” he said. “Sadly, for totally 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 are not giving up. We will never give up.”
Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, told CNN that his family was happy for Griner but that they were worried about what could be next for Paul Whelan.
“It’s a great day for the families of the wrongfully detained and we feel wonderful for them, but we do worry about what’s in Paul’s future,” he said. “I think it’s become clear that the U.S. doesn’t have any concessions that the Russian government wants for Paul and so I’m not really sure what the future holds.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, said Thursday that she felt “overwhelmed by emotions,” chiefly gratitude for the work done to free her wife. While she said the day was “just a happy day for me and my family,” she acknowledged that “there’s so many other families that are not whole.”
“B.G. and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today,” she said. “As we celebrate B.G. being home, we do understand that there are still people out there who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing tremendously their loved ones.”
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury center, had been in the custody of Russian officials since February, when authorities said they found less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage, according to The Washington Post. She was sentenced to serve 9 1/2 years after a court found her guilty of bringing illegal drugs into the country, The New York Times reported.
In a statement, the Mercury celebrated news of Griner’s release, which came 294 days after she was initially detained.
“The emotions for our organization, just like for our fans and so many across the world, are those of joyous celebration, deep gratitude, grief for the time lost, and sincere hope for all families still awaiting the return of a loved one,” the statement read. “BG’s strength in this process, her unwavering belief that resolution would come, and the hope she displayed every day is what kept all of us believing this day would come.”
Officials with the WNBA and the NBA also celebrated Griner’s release and thanked fans and players for raising awareness about her case.
The prisoner swap was the second between the U.S. and Russia to take place under Biden, following the release in April of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed.
Reed had been convicted two years earlier of assaulting two Russian police officers and sentenced to nine years in a prison camp. In exchange for his freedom, officials commuted the sentence of Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who had been convicted in 2011 of conspiring to traffic more than $100 million worth of cocaine, and was sentenced to serve 20 years in prison.
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