Russia frees Brittney Griner in prisoner exchange with the US after months of pressure

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  • The WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from Russian detainment Thursday.

  • The US government executed a prisoner exchange with Russia to free her.

  • The Biden administration agreed to release the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, per reports.

Russia has freed Brittney Griner, the US government confirmed Thursday.

The Kremlin agreed to a prisoner swap with the US, exchanging her for the release of the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

President Joe Biden celebrated Griner's release in a tweet Thursday and said he had spoken with her as she flew back to the US. He also posted a jubilant photo of himself with Griner's wife, Cherelle.

In a subsequent press conference from the White House, Biden — flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and Cherelle — said Griner "is in good spirits and relieved to be finally heading home."

Details of the deal were reported by numerous US outlets, including CBS, CNN, and The New York Times. The Biden administration initially proposed the prisoner exchange in June to bring the basketball superstar back to the US.

Paul Whelan, another American detained in Russia, was not included in the swap, CNN and CBS reported, despite earlier suggestions that he would be. During his press conference Thursday, Biden suggested that the Kremlin refused to negotiate for Whelan alongside Griner.

American detainee Paul Whelan holds a sign ahead of a hearing in Moscow.
American detainee Paul Whelan holds a sign ahead of a hearing in Moscow.REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul [Whelan]'s case differently than Brittney's," Biden said. "We are not giving up. We will never give up."

Cherelle, who also spoke during the press conference, used the platform to thank President Biden and his administration. She also committed to continuing the fight for other wrongfully detained Americans, including Whelan, after her wife returns stateside.

"BG is not here to say this but I will gladly speak on her behalf and say that BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today," Cherelle said. "As we celebrate BG being home, 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."


Bout had served more than 10 years of his minimum 25-year sentence for conspiring to provide "material support" to a terrorist organization, promising to supply them with anti-aircraft missiles, and engaging in a plot to kill Americans and US officials.

Griner, an eight-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, had been in Russian custody since February 17. The 6-foot-9 Phoenix Mercury center was charged with the large-scale transportation of drugs and moved to a Russian jail shortly after customs agents at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

Six months later, Griner was found guilty of drug smuggling with criminal intent and sentenced to nine years in Russian prison. But before her trial even began, the US State Department classified her as wrongfully detained — a move that angered Moscow and sent a "strong signal that the US government does not believe that there is a legitimate case against her," an expert who has navigated several hostage situations previously told Insider.

Brittney Griner leaving a Russian courtroom.
Griner being escorted out of a courtroom during her trial in Russia.Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool/Reuters

Prisoner swaps are nothing new between the US and Russia, but Bout is about as high-profile a criminal as they come

In April, the Biden administration negotiated the release of the Marine veteran Trevor Reed — who was arrested on baseless accusations that he attacked a Russian police officer in 2018 — in exchange for a convicted Russian drug smuggler.

But Bout has a far more sinister reputation than most of the people the US has released in past trades. Known as the "Merchant of Death," he is infamous for supplying rebel groups and terrorist organizations with weapons that fueled bloody wars across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

His 2008 arrest in Thailand, though, wasn't actually based on charges for the high-stakes trafficking operations that have since served as inspiration for several movies, documentaries, and books. Instead, he has been in foreign custody for over a decade after he was caught in a US Drug Enforcement Agency sting operation.

Viktor Bout
Viktor Bout.AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong, File

American officials lured the elusive arms distributor to engage with purported representatives of a Colombian guerilla group. He offered to sell weapons to the rebels, even with the understanding that the materials could have been used to kill Americans.

Soon after, Bout was arrested in Bangkok and, following an extended legal battle and protests from the Russian government, extradited to the United States. Nearly four years after his capture, Bout was convicted of a trio of crimes and handed his minimum 25-year sentence.

But the Hon. Shira A. Scheindlin, then a federal judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of New York who ruled on the case, has since said "the sentence was too high in the first place."

"It was mandatory. I had no discretion," she told Insider in early July. "I had to give the sentence I gave."

DEA agents escort Viktor Bout (center) off the plane after he was extradited to the United States.
DEA agents escort Bout (center) off the plane after he was extradited to the United States.U.S. Department of Justice via Getty Images

The Russian government had lobbied hard for Bout's return ever since, and Russian media repeatedly linked him to potential prisoner swaps with imprisoned Americans — including Reed. As recently as May, the Russian state media outlet Tass wrote that American and Russian officials had engaged in talks about a Bout-Griner prisoner exchange.

Linkage of Bout and Griner prompted Scheindlin to speak out about mischaracterizations surrounding Bout's arrest and conviction. Chief among her concerns: The "Merchant of Death" was never convicted of actually supplying anyone with weapons.

"No arms were sold," Scheindlin said. "Nobody was hurt, and he was kind of placed in that position because of his past and because of the way the agents handled it."

"I'm not saying he's an innocent guy, don't get me wrong, but I do think having served 11 years or so ... that's a pretty hefty amount of time in a person's life," she added. "I don't think it would be wrong to trade him. The US interest in punishing him has been satisfied, in my opinion."

Whether Bout had served enough time — or was too hefty a price for the US to pay — is still up for debate

Scheindlin was unwavering in her belief that Bout — whom she characterized as "a cold, cold businessman" but far from a terrorist — no longer posed a threat to the US or its allies. She added that "he'd be deranged the risk going back to prison."

Viktor Bout.

Jonathan Franks, who worked to free Reed earlier in the year and serves as the spokesman for the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, told Insider he didn't believe it'd be "a national security issue" to release Bout, in part because "he's not the same man" he was when he was first taken into custody some 15 years ago.

But other sources, like Dani Gilbert, insist that "there's a real American national security interest in keeping Viktor Bout locked up."

An expert on hostage taking and recovery who is currently a fellow in US foreign policy and international security at Dartmouth College, Gilbert told Insider that "the costs of letting him go are very real."

"He's a real bad guy," she said. "He's a violent criminal, who was responsible for aiding and abetting violence all over the world."

viktor bout
A screen showing Bout at his prison cell in Brooklyn, New York, on April 12, 2012.Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Gilbert also warned of concerns beyond Bout's notoriety and capacity for future harm; releasing such a high-profile criminal could incentivize Russia and other American adversaries to wrongfully detain more civilians in the future.

"The White House has to be cautious of advertising to the rest of the world that the minute you unjustly arrest an American citizen abroad that you will get the full attention of the Oval Office," Gilbert said, adding: "This narrative of 'you arrest Americans and the government will make concessions to bring them home' does set a really dangerous precedent."

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered similar analysis during a press briefing in late July, telling media members that the US had "two imperatives when it comes to arbitrarily wrongfully detained Americans anywhere in the world, including Russia, including in the cases of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan."

Brittney Griner.
Griner behind bars in Russia.REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool

"We, of course, want to see those who are wrongfully detained be released and be able to return home," Blinken said. "At the same time, it's important that we work to reinforce the global norm against these arbitrary detentions, against what is truly a horrific practice."

But with pressure mounting to bring the Olympian home — especially in light of her abrupt transfer to one of the notorious penal colonies in Russia's Republic of Mordovia — the US government seemingly prioritized securing Griner's freedom over concerns about incentivizing future hostage taking.

The administration moved to address such issues in July, when Biden declared a national emergency in the form of an executive order predominantly focused on preventive measures to reduce the number of US nationals wrongfully detained or held hostage abroad.


Read the original article on Insider