Brittney Griner released from Russia in swap for 'Merchant of Death' arms dealer Viktor Bout

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U.S. President Joe Biden announces a prisoner exchange with Russia from the Roosevelt Room of the White House Thursday. The United States will swap Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout with Russia to release professional American basketball player Brittney Griner. Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 8 (UPI) — President Joe Biden said Thursday that WNBA star and Olympian Brittney Griner has been released from a Russian prison in a one-for-one prisoner exchange.

In remarks from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, alongside Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, Biden said exchange took place in the United Arab Emirates after months of negotiations.

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

While Biden did not mention the other person involved in the trade, Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Griner was released in exchange for the U.S. release of international arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Brittney Griner, the 32-year-old center for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested at a Moscow airport in February after arriving in the country with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was found guilty of smuggling narcotics into Russia in August and sentenced to nine years in prison.

Biden said Brittney Griner was unjustly detained in Russia and “held under intolerable circumstances.”

“These past few months have been hell for Brittney and for Cherelle and her entire family and all teammates back home,” Biden said. “People across the country have learned about Brittney’s story, advocated for her release, stood with her throughout this terrible ordeal and I know that and I know that support meant a lot to her family.”

Cherelle Griner said she was “overwhelmed” with emotions about the release news. She was at the White House when Biden said Brittney Griner was on a plane coming back to the United States.

“Over the last nine months, you all have been privy to one of the darkest moments of my life,” Cherelle Griner said. “Today, I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions, but the most important emotion that I have right now is just the sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration. He just mentioned this work is not easy and it has not been.”

Brittney Griner’s arrest came shortly before the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Since then, sports figures and political leaders have continued their pressure campaign on the White House to negotiate her return.

In its statement, the Russian foreign ministry said the United States “categorically refused to engage in dialogue” on the inclusion of Bout in the prisoner exchange.

“Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot,” the ministry said.

Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” was serving a 25-year prison sentence for selling weapons that U.S. prosecutors said were intended to be used to kill Americans.

The one-for-one exchange means that former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been in Russian custody since 2018, was not part of the deal.

Whelan was arrested at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and convicted of espionage charges. The former security executive has denied the charges. He is serving a 16-year hard labor sentence at a Mordovia prison camp.

Biden accused Russia of treating the Whelan case differently from Brittney Griner’s but he said negotiations for his release remain ongoing.

“We have not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years,” Biden said Thursday. “This was not a choice of which American to bring home. … While we have not succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.

“We remain in close touch with Paul’s family, the Whelan family, and my thoughts and prayers are with them today. They have to have such mixed emotions today and we’ll keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.”

Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said in a statement that he can “literally only imagine” the joy Brittney Griner will experience being reunited with her family “in time for the holidays,” while adding it was difficult for his family to process that his brother has still not been released.

“That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And catastrophe for Paul,” he said. “I do not know if he is aware yet, although he will surely learn from Russian media.”

Cherelle Griner voiced her commitment and support for Whelan’s release, as well.

“My family is whole, but as you are aware, there’s so many other families who are not whole,” she said. “B.G. is not here to say this, but I will gladly speak on her behalf and say that B.G. and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate B.G. home.

“We do understand that there are still people out there who are enduring what I have endured the last nine months of missing tremendously their loved one.”

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