Brittney Griner freed from Russian penal colony in high-level prisoner swap

In this image made from video provided by Russian Federal Security Service, WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner sits in the plane as she flies to Abu Dhabi to be exchanged for Russian citizen Viktor Bout, in Russia, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. (Russian Federal Security Service via AP)
Brittney Griner on the plane headed for Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where the prisoner swap took place Thursday. (Russian Federal Security Service via Associated Press)
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Brittney Griner is home after 294 days in Russian detention.

Russia freed the WNBA star Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the U.S. releasing Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, U.S. officials said. The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over the war in Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Biden but carried a heavy price — and left behind another American who has been jailed for nearly four years in Russia.

“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time,” Biden said from the White House, alongside Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.

But while the president celebrated Griner’s release, he emphasized the administration had not forgotten about Paul Whelan, a former Marine who remains jailed in Russia.

“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said, noting that the Kremlin was treating Whelan’s case differently than Griner’s for “totally illegitimate reasons.”

“While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up,” Biden said.

Griner’s wife expressed her “sincere gratitude” to Biden and his administration and vowed to continue working on returning Americans who are detained abroad.

“We do understand that there are still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing tremendously their loved ones,” she said.

The news prompted swift and joyous response across the sports landscape, with many WNBA stars and LGBTQ athletes helping lead the public advocacy for extracting Griner from a country known for its hostility toward the LGBTQ community.

The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, and that Bout had been flown home.

Bout, one of the world’s biggest arms traffickers, was snared in a U.S. government sting operation in 2008 in Bangkok. He thought he was meeting with representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist Colombian guerrilla organization, to sell them rocket launchers and helicopters. But undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as guerrillas arrested Bout.

He was eventually extradited to the U.S., and in 2011 was sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring to kill Americans, among other crimes. He was confined to a medium-security federal prison in Illinois.

U.S. prosecutors said Bout's clients included dictators such as the late Moammar Kadafi of Libya and Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president convicted at The Hague in 2012 of war crimes including murder and rape.

Whelan’s brother David said in a statement he was “so glad” for Griner’s release but also disappointed for his family. He credited the White House with giving the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not fault officials for making the deal.

“The Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.

In an interview with CNN on Thursday, Paul Whelan said he was “greatly disappointed” that more has not been done to secure his release.

“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said in a phone call from the penal colony where he is being held in a remote part of Russia.

Griner had not even reached U.S. airspace when critics mounted a backlash to the administration’s securing of her release by freeing a notorious criminal convicted of trying to kill Americans.

Critics said it would encourage rogue states and others to kidnap or detain U.S. citizens.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre defended the decision, saying that the Russian government and others were already seizing Americans illegally and that freeing Griner was the “moral” thing to do.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), the likely incoming speaker, said the swap was a “gift” to Russian President Vladimir Putin that will “endanger American lives.”

“I am relieved that Ms. Griner will be returned home safely,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said. “However, trading Viktor Bout — a dangerous convicted arms dealer who was in prison for conspiring to kill Americans — will only embolden Vladimir Putin to continue his evil practice of taking innocent Americans hostage for use as political pawns.”

Senior U.S. government officials said they pushed for months in negotiations with the Russians for the swap to include Griner and Whelan. The U.S. negotiators offered alternative proposals, which the officials would not detail.

But the Russians would not budge, an administration official said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Finally, the official said, Biden made the “difficult” decision to accept the one-for-one exchange.

In recent years, an entire division dedicated to gaining the release of Americans imprisoned abroad has been formed inside the State Department. It is headed by Roger Carstens, a diplomat and retired Special Forces officer whose title is special presidential envoy for hostage affairs and who was accompanying Griner on the flight home.

In April, the U.S. secured the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed as part of a prisoner swap that also resulted in a convicted Russian drug trafficker being freed from a U.S. prison.

The official dismissed the suggestion that the deal with Russia indicated a potentially better atmosphere for dialogue with Moscow, or any goodwill, as the U.S. faces other crises such as the war in Ukraine and economic sanctions imposed on Putin’s government.

“These were very targeted, very focused negotiations that concerned one very important topic — but one narrow topic,” the official said. “It speaks to an ability to get this sort of thing done even when we are in the midst of very tough relations with a government like Russia.”

The administration informed Ukraine as well as other Western partners of the swap to reassure them that it was unrelated to other issues.

Bout was not pardoned, the official said, but granted clemency by Biden, a step necessary for his release ahead of the completion of his sentence in 2029.

Griner was moved to Moscow from a penal colony in the isolated republic of Mordovia “a couple of days ago,” the official said, and flown to Abu Dhabi on Thursday morning. Until now, the administration had publicly indicated little progress on negotiations for release of the “unlawfully detained” prisoners — as Washington refers to Griner and Whelan, as well as a number of other Americans around the world.

Griner’s life changed Feb. 17, when Russian authorities say they found vape cartridges with 0.7 of a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage when she arrived to play basketball for UMMC Ekaterinburg, an elite Russian club team. She had a layover in Moscow on her way from the U.S. to Ekaterinburg and was detained.

She pleaded guilty July 7 and on Aug. 4 was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison and fined 1 million rubles — about $16,000 — by judge Anna Sotnikova of the Khimki City Court outside Moscow. Griner testified that she had unintentionally carried the banned substance into Russia because she had packed in a hurry. She denied purposely committing a crime.

Ahead of her conviction, Griner made an emotional plea to Sotnikova, apologizing for breaking the law but saying she made “an honest mistake” in bringing the vape cartridges into Russia. “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life,” Griner said.

Griner’s Russian lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, issued a statement the day she pleaded guilty that read in part: “[Griner] decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people.”

A week later, Blagovolina submitted to the court an Arizona doctor's letter recommending Griner use cannabis to treat pain. A hearing was held to allow character witnesses to testify on her behalf, including Maxim Rybakov, the head of the Ekaterinburg team, and teammate Evgenia Belyakova.

Sotnikova, however, handed down nearly the full 10-year sentence that prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko requested. Griner appealed the verdict, but the Moscow Regional Court ruled Oct. 25 to uphold the sentence.

U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan denounced the appeal hearing as “another sham judicial proceeding,” saying in a statement that Biden “is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home.”

The State Department in May designated Griner as wrongfully detained, moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.

Blinken announced July 27 that the U.S. government had launched top-priority negotiations with Russia weeks earlier to release Griner and Whelan.

Blinken had a telephone call with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on July 29, marking the highest-level communication between the two countries’ governments since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

The saga dragged into the fall with Blagovolina and Boykov spending a few hours with Griner on her 32nd birthday Oct. 18, one week before her appeal hearing. The attorneys relayed birthday wishes to her, and Griner sent a message through them: “Thank you everyone for fighting so hard to get me home. All the support and love are definitely helping me.”

In addition, Griner's agent, Lindsay Colas, launched a new phase of the #WeareBG campaign of athletes, activists, and organizations with a video and a new system for the public to send messages to Griner.

Griner, a 6-foot-9 center, is considered the best women’s basketball player in the U.S. She was an All-American at Baylor, anchored two U.S. Olympic gold-medal teams and is a perennial All-Star with the Phoenix Mercury. Experts have speculated that she was singled out for prosecution by the Russian government because of her celebrity.

While awaiting trial, Griner wrote a letter to Biden that read in part, “As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever.”

Griner asked Biden not to “forget about me and the other American Detainees.”

Griner had only sporadic communication with Cherelle and others in the U.S. Emails to her were printed and delivered to Griner by her lawyers after being vetted by Russian officials. The lawyers retrieved responses from Griner and sent them to the U.S.

She was supposed to have a phone call with Cherelle on their third wedding anniversary June 18, but it failed because no one was at the American Embassy to connect the call between them. Apparently, no one was working at the embassy because it was a Saturday.

Griner’s predicament wasn’t widely publicized until U.S. athletes began drawing attention to it. Some have asked whether the fact that she is Black and lesbian lessened public sympathy.

“If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?” Vanessa Nygaard, Griner’s coach with the Mercury, said this summer. “It’s a statement about the value of women. It’s a statement about the value of a Black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person.”

The Boston Celtics wore “We are BG” T-shirts during the NBA Finals. LeBron James, Stephen Curry and others demanded her release. U.S. woman's soccer star Megan Rapinoe wore a jacket with Griner’s initials stitched into her lapel as she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The WNBA announced that Griner's initials and jersey number 42 would be displayed on the sidelines at all games. Mercury players wore shirts bearing the message, “We are BG.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.