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Russia frees US basketball star Brittney Griner in exchange for ‘Merchant of Death’ Viktor Bout

President Joe Biden confirmed the deal between Washington and Moscow: ‘She’s safe, she’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained under intolerable circumstances’

Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner during her court hearing in Moscow, August 4, 2022.EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA (REUTERS)
Miguel Jiménez

American professional basketball star Brittney Griner has been released from jail in Russia in a prisoner swap involving convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States, according to US sources.

Griner pleaded guilty in a Russian court to entering the country in possession of a small amount of cannabis oil contained in e-cigarette cartridges when she arrived at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow in February to play for Russian Premier League team UMMC Ekaterinburg, with whom she had won previously two championships, during the WNBA off-season. Griner, an Olympic gold medalist with the USA at the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games, was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony.

US President Joe Biden gave the go-ahead for the prisoner exchange, which took place in the United Arab Emirates, even though Paul Whelan was excluded from the deal. Washington had initially asked Moscow to include Whelan, a former US Marine who was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 by a Moscow court on espionage charges and who remains imprisoned in Russia, in the deal.

Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner in action with the Phoenix Mercury in Game Three of the 2021 WNBA semifinals in Tempe, Arizona. CHRISTIAN PETERSEN (AFP)

Biden: “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time”

Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, was in the Oval Office with Biden when the deal went through and both were able to speak to the player by telephone, a senior White House official confirmed. “She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances,” Biden said, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the exchange “was successfully completed at the airport in Abu Dhabi” and claimed credit for the deal, stating that Washington had been reluctant to discuss any terms including Bout. “However, the Russian Federation continued to work actively to rescue our compatriot,” the ministry said.

Since the end Cold War prisoner exchanges, which formerly mainly involved spies, have become a frequent practice between Washington and Moscow, not least because of the harsh sentences often handed down by Russian courts in cases involving foreigners. The last time a prisoner swap took place was in 2020 when Trevor Reed, a US Marine veteran jailed for nine years for assaulting a police officer, was freed in exchange for a Russian pilot serving a sentence in the United States.

Bout, though, is not just any Russian prisoner. Known as “the merchant of death,” the 55-year-old was convicted in 2012 of providing weaponry to terrorist organizations and conspiracy to kill Americans and US officials. Bout was arrested in Thailand by the DEA in 2008 after a lengthy operation by US authorities and extradited two years later.

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