After months of heartache, Brittney Griner is officially free.
The WNBA star has been released after 294 days in Russian custody, a senior White House official announced on Dec. 8. Griner—who was found guilty on drug charges by a Russian court and sentenced to 9 years in prison in August—was traded for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was 11 years into a 25-year sentence.
Per the official, President Joe Biden signed off on the trade, which took place in the UAE. American businessman Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018, was not included in the deal.
"Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner," the president tweeted Dec. 8 alongside photos with Brittney's wife, Cherelle Griner,and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House. "She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home."
This news comes nearly a year after the Phoenix Mercury center, who plays for a Russian team during the off-season, was arrested at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport in February for allegedly possessing vape cartridges that contained cannabis oil in her luggage.
She was later charged with smuggling of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances, their precursors or analogues, and with illegal acquisition, storage, transportation, manufacture, processing of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances or their analogues. During her trial on July 7, Brittney pled guilty to all of the charges but said that she did not act deliberately.
"My parents taught me two important things," Brittney told the court through tears following closing arguments on Aug. 4. "Take ownership for your responsibilities and work hard for everything that you have. That's why I plead guilty to my charges. I understand the charges against me. I had no intent to break any Russian laws. I want the courts to understand it was an honest mistake."
The 32-year-old continued, "I never meant to hurt anybody. I never meant to break any Russian laws. I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn't end my life here."
Brittney had previously testified that she was legally prescribed medical marijuana by a doctor in the United States. She said she was going through airport security when a member of staff asked her to open her bag, which led to the discovery of the cartridges, per NBC News. After signing documents that she couldn't understand without Google Translate, the basketball player said she was able to call a lawyer before her phone was confiscated.
"At that point it felt like I was being held against my will," she said, according to the outlet. "I asked again what's going on and when can I see my lawyer. I was then told I have to be interrogated."
"As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone regardless of nationality," they shared. "The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea. This contradicts the existing legal practice. Taking into account the amount of the substance (not to mention the defects of the expertise) and the plea, the verdict is absolutely unreasonable. We will certainly file an appeal."
Biden also shared his disappointment. "Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney," he said in a statement. "It's unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates."
The president kept in touch with Brittney and wrote her a letter shortly after the athlete sent an open letter to the White House, which arrived on July 4.
During a July 28 press conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken shared that the administration had "put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate" the release of Brittney and Whelan, per NBC News. "Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I'll use the conversation to follow up personally and, I hope, move us toward a resolution."
"I have to walk the fine line of harm versus help when it comes to my wife right now," Cherelle told CBS Mornings on July 5. "So, as much as I want to advocate for her and push for our governments to do everything, I also have to take into account that she's in a position where she could be harmed also, by any and everything I do, and so, it's a thin line to walk."
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