WNBA star Brittney Griner was freed Thursday from Russian custody in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the U.S. releasing notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout.
President Joe Biden, who signed off on the trade, confirmed during a morning news conference that Griner landed in the United Arab Emirates and was expected to be on U.S. soil in the next 24 hours. Biden, standing next to Griner's wife Cherelle Griner, said they spoke to the basketball star by phone and she appeared in "good spirits."
"She's safe, she's on a plane, she's on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held in intolerable circumstances," Biden said. "Britney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along."
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Philadelphia sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
In her brief remarks, Cherelle Griner thanked the Biden administration for their efforts in securing her wife's release, saying she's "overwhelmed with emotions, but the most important emotion I'm feeling right now is gratitude."
The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Biden, but carried a heavy price — and left behind Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed for nearly four years in Russia on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless.
Biden said the U.S. hasn't given up on Whealan and "we'll never give up" fighting to get him home.
"This was not a choice of which American to bring home," Biden said. "Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Britney's."
The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose monthslong imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.
Biden's authorization to release a Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death" underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world's most prolific arms dealers. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.
The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner's freedom. The detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.
Griner was arrested at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia's judicial system does not automatically end a case.
She acknowledged in court that she possessed the canisters, but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.
Before being sentenced on Aug. 4 and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offense, an emotional Griner apologized "for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.” She added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”
Griner’s arrest made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and made each development a matter of international importance.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.