Brittney Griner was released by Russia in a 1-for-1 prisoner swap for arms dealer Viktor Bout


WashingtonBrittney Grinerthe WNBA star, who was being held in Russian jails for months on drug-related charges, was released Thursday on a one-on-one basis Swap prisoners for international arms dealers Victor fightending an ordeal that sparked intense high-level negotiations between the US and the Kremlin to secure their freedom.

“She’s safe. She’s on an airplane. She’s on her way home,” President Biden said said at the White House, Announcement of exchange. “After months of being unjustly detained in Russia in unbearable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of loved ones and she should have been there all along. This is a day we’ve been working towards for a long time. We have never stopped pushing for their release.”

CBS News was the first to report the swap, which took place in the United Arab Emirates, citing a US official. The exchange agreement negotiated with Moscow over the past few weeks has been finally approved Mr. Biden within just in the last week, according to sources familiar with the deal.

Five former US officials told CBS News of the agreement was reached until last Thursday.

The President said he spoke to Griner on the phone from the Oval Office, where he was joined by Griner’s wife Cherelle, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Under standard procedure for freed US prisoners, Griner was to undergo a medical exam quickly.

Mr Biden said he was “glad to say Brittney is in good spirits” and that she was looking forward to getting home. The president dismissed the “show trial in Russia” that landed her in jail, saying “she did not ask for special treatment”.

To secure Griner’s release, the President ordered Bout freed and brought back to Russia. Mr. Biden signed the commutation order shortening Bout’s 25-year federal sentence.

Notably, the griner-for-bout trade leaves retired US Marines Paul Whelan imprisoned in Russia. Whelan has been in Russian custody for nearly four years. He was convicted of espionage charges which the US has called false.

“We haven’t forgotten Paul Whelan,” Mr. Biden said Thursday, adding “we will never give up” in order to secure his release. US officials told reporters that in talks with the Russians it had become clear that the prospect of securing the release of Griner and Whelan in exchange for Bout was a false start, with one official saying the US had “the choice of a bringing home a certain American — Brittney Griner — or bringing home none.”

Whelan told CNN in a call Thursday that he was glad Griner was free, but said he was “very disappointed that more was not done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest approaches.”

Griner, a 32-year-old star center for Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA, was arrested at a Russian airport in February and later pleaded guilty to charges of discovering cannabis-derived oil cartridges in her luggage. Griner said she didn’t want to bring the cartridges with her as she traveled to the country to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA offseason.

After five months of stalled diplomacy and various permutations of possible swap deals – including a previously unreported offer by the US last summer to send two prisoners back to Russia for the two Americans – sources said the one-for-one swaps will continue over the course of the month Year has come together for the last two weeks.

Whelan, who once worked as a corporate security contractor, was in Moscow for a friend’s wedding when he was arrested at a hotel in December 2018. Russian authorities later sentenced him to 16 years in prison for espionage — a charge the US and Whelan disputed. This month marks the fourth anniversary of Whelan’s time in Russian custody.

Bout, who was last held in a federal prison in Marion, Illinois, was arrested by Thailand’s Drug Enforcement Agency after an undercover operation in 2008. He was found guilty of conspiring to murder Americans and began his 25-year sentence a decade ago.

Griner’s arrest coincided with the beginning of February Russia’s baseless invasion of Ukraine, and all US dealings with the Kremlin have been hampered by this conflict. The US said both Griner and Whelan were “wrongly detained,” and officials suspected Russia used the American prisoners as leverage.

Griner’s return to Bout marks the Biden administration’s second prisoner swap with Russia. In April, the US traded in Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian smuggler convicted of conspiracy to import cocaine Trevor Reeda former US Marine imprisoned in Russia for almost three years.

CBS News learned last Thursday that the Griner-for-Bout swap was imminent, but agreed to a request from the White House to withhold coverage as officials expressed grave concern about the fragility of the then-budding deal.

Biden administration officials warned that releasing details of the swap beforehand would almost certainly prompt Russia to pull out of the deal and potentially jeopardize Griner’s well-being.

Nancy Cordes, Ed O’Keefe, Sara Cook, Camilla Schick, Tucker Reals, Haley Ott, Melissa Quinn and Caitlin Yilek contributed coverage.

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