Brittney Griner, an American basketball player, arrived in the United States early Friday after being released in a high-profile prisoner exchange after nearly 10 months in detention in Russia.
The deal, in which she was exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, secured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad and fulfilled a top priority for President Joe Biden. However, the United States was unable to secure the release of another American, Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned for nearly four years.
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a Baylor University All-American, and a pro basketball player for the Phoenix Mercury. Her status as an openly gay Black woman imprisoned in a country hostile to the LBGTQ community injected racial, gender, and social dynamics into her legal saga, bringing unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.
Biden’s approval to release Bout, the Russian felon dubbed “the Merchant of Death,” underscored the increased urgency that his administration faced in bringing Griner home, especially after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
Griner was seen getting off a plane after it landed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas on Friday.
The athlete, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was detained at an airport in February after Russian authorities claimed she was carrying cannabis oil vape canisters. Prior to her conviction, the United States Griner was “wrongfully detained,” according to the State Department, a charge Russia strongly denies.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the swap on Thursday, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that it happened in Abu Dhabi and Bout was flown home.
Biden spoke with Griner over the phone. Officials in the United States said she would be given specialized medical care and counseling.
By releasing Bout, the United States freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel described by the Justice Department as “one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers.” He was apprehended in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the United States in 2010.
Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges of conspiring to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons to be used against Americans, according to US officials.
Griner pleaded guilty in July after being arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, but she still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.
She admitted in court that she had cannabis oil canisters in her possession, but she claimed she had no criminal intent and had accidentally packed them. Her defense team presented written statements indicating that she had been prescribed cannabis for pain relief.
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