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Brittney Griner has been released from Russia in a prisoner swap

brittany griner 12082022.jpg
Evgenia Novozhenina
AFP Via Getty Images
Brittney Griner inside a defendant's cage during a hearing in Moscow in August.

Griner was traded for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The swap did not include former Marine Paul Whelan who remains imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges the U.S. says are false.

WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was held for months in Russian prisons on drug charges, has been released in a prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Here's what we know:

  • During a press conference, President Joe Biden said Griner was relieved to be released: “She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home."
  • Former Marine Paul Whelan, another American detained in Russia, was not included in the swap, but Biden said his team is continuing to work for his release. Biden said Russia was handling Whelan’s case differently than Griner’s.
  • Bout, once known as the world's most notorious arms dealer, was swapped for Griner at the Abu Dhabi airport this morning following his release from an Illinois prison.
  • Griner’s wife expresses gratitude and says “BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul."

Griner, 32, was arrested in February when she arrived to play in the Russian women's professional basketball league. She was carrying less than a gram of hash oil in vape cartridges, which she said in court she had packed by mistake. She provided documents that showed the hash oil was legally prescribed by her U.S. doctor for pain management.

She was sentenced to nine years in a prison colony in Mordovia — 300 miles southeast of Moscow — where she was transferred last month.

Biden says Griner is safe and relieved

Speaking at the White House on Thursday, Biden reiterated that Griner is safe and on a plane home after months of being detained in a Russian prison over drug charges.

"This is a day we worked toward for a long time," Biden said. "We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstaking and intense negotiations."

“These past few months have been hell” for Griner and her family, Biden said. “She’s lost months of her life, experienced needless trauma.”

Griner’s detention had been a top priority for Biden and his administration. In July, she sent him a handwritten letter, saying, “I’m terrified I might be here forever.”

Biden told reporters last month that he hoped Russia would engage in negotiations on a prisoner exchange after the U.S. midterm elections had ended.

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Brendan Smialowski
AFP Via Getty Images
President Biden, with Brittney Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, did not take questions after his statement Thursday.

Griner's wife, Cherelle, says she is overwhelmed by emotions

Flanked by Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Cherelle Griner said she was overwhelmed by emotions, expressing gratitude to members of the administration involved in securing her wife’s release, the WNBA and Griner’s agent.

"For the last nine months, you all have been so privy to the darkest time of my life," she said.

"Today, my family is whole, but as you all are aware, there are so many families that aren't whole."

“BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul."

Neither Biden nor Cherelle Griner took questions from the press.

Biden vows to keep working to bring Whelan home

As the Biden administration celebrates the homecoming of one prominent American detained in Russia, it's pledging to continue working to secure the release of another who's been there even longer.

Whelan was detained in Moscow in 2018 on espionage charges, found guilty in a closed trial and is now nearly three years into a 16-year prison sentence.

"He is probably as well as you could be in a Russian labor camp," his twin brother David told NPR in April of this year. "They don't provide nutritional meals, and they don't really take too much care of the prisoners. There's a lot of corruption and other abuse. So I think he does his best to stay out of people's way."

At the end of November, Whelan was briefly transferred from a penal colony to a prison hospital. He spoke to his family last Friday, after a week of silence that had prompted concern in the White House over his whereabouts and condition.

Brittney Griner is the second American detainee to be released from Russia this year after Trevor Reed was freed in a prisoner swap in April.

The first U.S. proposal to bring Griner home, in June, had originally included Whelan. But as Biden said at his Thursday news conference, "Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's."

Biden stressed that "this was not a choice of which American to bring home," and that efforts to secure Whelan's release are ongoing. He said during his prepared remarks, and answering a reporter's question, that his administration is in close touch with Whelan's family.

"My thoughts and prayers are with them today, they have to have such mixed emotions today," he said. "And we'll keep negotiating in good faith for Paul's release, I guarantee that ... I urge Russia to do the same, to ensure Paul's health and humane treatment are maintained until we are able to bring him home."

In a State Department statement released early Thursday, Secretary Antony Blinken thanked the State Department team involved in negotiations and Special Presidential Envoy Roger Carstens, who is accompanying Griner back to the U.S.

"While we celebrate Brittney’s release, Paul Whelan and his family continue to suffer needlessly," Blinken continued. "Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian Government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention.:"

"I wholeheartedly wish we could have brought Paul home today on the same plane with Brittney. Nevertheless, we will not relent in our efforts to bring Paul and all other U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad home to their loved ones where they belong."

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Kirill Kudryavtsev
AFP Via Getty Images
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of espionage and arrested in Russia in December 2018, stands inside a defendant's cage as he waits to hear his verdict in Moscow on June 15, 2020.

Bittersweet for Whelan’s family

Griner's release is both a source of celebration and sadness for the family of Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018.

Whelan's family said in a statement Thursday that U.S. officials had let them know a day in advance that Whelan would be left behind in today's prisoner swap. That was not the case in April, when 30-year-old former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed was released in exchange for jailed pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.

"That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us," David told the Detroit News. "And a catastrophe for Paul. I do not know if he is aware yet, although he will surely learn from Russian media. Our parents have had calls with him every day since his return to IK-17 on December 2d, and they will surely speak to him soon."

However, Whelan also said he is happy for Griner and her loved ones, adding that "there is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home."

"As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays," he wrote. "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."

Jonathan Franks, spokesperson for the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, said in a statement that while "we celebrate Brittney's homecoming, our hearts break for the Whelan family."

"Paul Whelan has been let down and left behind at least three times by 2 Presidents," he added. "He deserves better from his government, and our Campaign implores President Biden to urgently secure Paul’s immediate return using all tools available."

The U.S. included Whelan in its original prisoner swap proposal, but Biden said that "for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's." He pledged on Thursday to continue working to bring Whelan home.

Who is Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer

Russia's Foreign Ministry confirmed that Griner’s freedom was part of a one-to-one prisoner swap in which the U.S. released Bout, the arms dealer who has been nicknamed "The Merchant of Death."

“As a result of intense efforts we managed to agree with the American side on organization of an exchange of Bout for Griner," it said in a statement. "The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland.”

NPR's Greg Myre brought us this explainer on Bout over the summer, when his name was first floated as part of a possible deal to free Griner. Here's an excerpt:

Bout was in his mid-20s when the Soviet Union fractured in 1991, leaving vast quantities of Soviet military hardware scattered across 15 newly minted countries. Most all of them were ill-equipped to pay their troops or keep track of the weapons they'd just inherited. Almost anything was available for a price.

Trained by the Soviet military as a linguist, Bout began acquiring Soviet military transport planes and loaded them up with weapons. The U.S. says he sold them all over the world. Various reports linked him to wars in Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen and more.

He was entrepreneurial, not ideological, selling to governments that were fighting rebels, and to rebels who were fighting governments. Separating fact from fiction has often been difficult when documenting Bout's work, but many reports said he even sold arms to both sides in the same conflict.

Bout always denied he was selling weapons, claiming he was flying flowers and frozen chickens to some of the world's most violent places.

He was always hard to pin down, but he lived openly in Moscow, traveled widely, occasionally spoke to reporters and seemed to welcome at least some of the attention. He became so notorious that Hollywood made a 2005 movie loosely based on his life, called the Lord of War, starring Nicolas Cage.

Bout was nicknamed "The Merchant of Death," which was also the title of a biography.

Despite facing international sanctions and threats of arrest, Bout managed to stay a step ahead of law enforcement until 2008, when he was captured in a sting operation in Thailand, organized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

The Thais extradited Bout to the U.S. two years later, where he was charged with conspiring to kill Americans. He was convicted in a Manhattan court in 2011, and is a little less than halfway through his 25-year sentence at a prison in Marion, Ill.

Russia's Foreign Ministry confirms the swap

The two sides are using very different language to describe the deal.

Biden and the White House have steered clear of calling this a prisoner swap, focusing instead on Griner’s release after being detained for months in Russia in a case the U.S. has maintained is politically motivated.

Moscow and state-run media are trumpeting news of the swap, with Russia’s foreign ministry saying Griner and Bout were exchanged Thursday at an airport in Abu Dhabi.

The distinction underlines the sensitivity of what Biden called “intense negotiations” to secure Griner’s release. He also mentioned the continuing plight of Whelan.

While Biden spoke about Whelan, he did not mention Bout, who for months was seen as the bargaining chip that might win Griner's freedom. Bout was sent to a federal prison in Illinois after a U.S. court convicted him in 2011.

“What has Russia gotten in return for this prisoner swap, Mr. President?” a reporter yelled as the president concluded his press briefing.

After the White House announcement, senior Biden administration officials acknowledged the swap.

In a conference call with NPR journalists and other reporters, the officials said Bout was already slated to be freed in 2029, noting that he’s served 12 years of his sentence. Biden ordered Bout to be released as an act of clemency, an official said, but the Russian’s criminal conviction still stands.

Ahead of Biden's news conferenice, Russia's Foreign Ministry confirmed the details of the swap on its end:

“Over the course of a long period of time, the Russian Federation held negotiations with the U.S. for Bout’s freedom. Washington categorically refused dialogue for inclusion of the Russian in any exchange scheme. Nonetheless, the RF continued to actively work toward the extraction of our countryman.

“As a result of intense efforts we managed to agree with the American side on organization of an exchange of Bout for Griner. The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Paul Whelan's release is 'long overdue'

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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