Breaking story: will be updated
Russia frees US basketball star Brittney Griner in prisoner trade for arms dealer Viktor Bout
The US and Russia have reached an agreement to free US basketball star Brittney Griner, in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout, who has been held in an American prison for 12 years.
President Biden: “I spoke with Brittney Griner. She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home.” pic.twitter.com/dqyfoTpNvG
— CSPAN (@cspan) December 8, 2022
US President Joe Biden, who signed the order for Bout’s release, commuting his 25-year jail term, said Griner was safe and on a plane home from the United Arab Emirates.
“I’m glad to say Brittney’s in good spirits.. she needs time and space to recover,” he said at the White House.
Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February for possessing cannabis oil and last month sent to a penal colony.
The Biden administration proposed a prisoner exchange last July, aware that Moscow had long sought Bout’s release.
Russia’s foreign ministry confirmed the swap and said it had taken place at Abu Dhabi airport. “The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland,” it said in a statement.
While Russian news agencies said he was still being flown to Vnukovo airport near Moscow.
In a tweet, President Biden posted a picture from the Oval Office alongside Griner’s wife Cherelle.
“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” he wrote.
Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner.
She is safe.
She is on a plane.
She is on her way home. pic.twitter.com/FmHgfzrcDT
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 8, 2022
A White House official confirmed the president spoke to Brittney Griner by phone. The call happened in the Oval Office, where the president was joined by Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Speaking in the Oval Office, Cherelle praised the efforts of the Biden administration in securing her release: “I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions.”
“Today my family is whole — but as you all are aware, there’s so many families who are not whole.”
Cherelle Griner pledges she and Brittney Griner “will remain committed to the work of getting every American home.” https://t.co/MNTPJkMnuu pic.twitter.com/L97SUSYflL
— ABC News (@ABC) December 8, 2022
The basketball star was detained in February, after being arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for being in possession of a small amount (less than a gram in two vape cartridges) of cannabis oil.
Griner, 31, admitted possessing cannabis oil, pleading guilty at her trial in July, but told the court she made an “honest mistake”.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” she told the court at the time.
On August 4, a Russian court convicted the athlete of smuggling and possessing narcotics and handed her close to the maximum sentence – which is ten years – recommended by prosecutors.
As Griner was being led out of the courtroom in handcuffs, sha could be seen mouthing: “I love my family.”
Her appeal was later rejected.
Last month it was revealed that the penal colony where Griner was being held – called IK-2 Mordovia – was one of the roughest facilities in Russia, where prisoners are ‘barely treated like humans.’
Viktor Bout sold arms to warlords and rogue governments, becoming one of the world’s most wanted men.
Dubbed the “merchant of death” for gun-running in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian’s exploits inspired the 2005 Hollywood film Lord of War, which was loosely based on his life.
His secretive career was brought to an end by an elaborate US sting in 2008, when he was arrested at a hotel in the Thai capital Bangkok, to the anger of the Russian government.
He was extradited two years later and has spent the past 12 years languishing in an American jail for conspiring to support terrorists and kill Americans.
The exchange leaves retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who had long been mentioned alongside Griner, still imprisoned in Russia.
Whelan has been in Russian custody for nearly four years. He was convicted on espionage charges that the U.S. has say were false.
“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Mr. Biden said Thursday, adding “we will never give up” on securing his release.
Griner’s return for Bout is the Biden administration’s second prisoner swap with Russia.
In April, the U.S. traded Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian smuggler convicted of conspiring to import cocaine, for Trevor Reed. The former U.S. Marine had been imprisoned in Russia for nearly three years.