Scooby Axson - USA TODAY
Phoenix Mercury center and WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner has been released from a Russian penal colony and is in United States custody after a prisoner exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout, President Biden confirmed Thursday morning.
In a news conference at the White House, Biden said the exchange had been in the works for the past two weeks, and that he had given the final go-ahead. He said the exchange took place in the United Arab Emirates, and that he had spoken with Griner on the phone. Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, was at the White House on Thursday.
Biden said the “past few months have been hell for Brittney” but that she is in good spirits.
Senior administration officials said that Griner was released from the penal colony within the last 48 hours and taken to Moscow before flying to the United Arab Emirates and is currently on her way back to the United States.
Brittney Griner 'relieved to be heading home'
"We never forgot about Brittney," Biden said. "I'm glad to be able to say Brittney is in good spirits. She's relieved to finally be heading home, and the fact remains that she's lost months of her life, experienced a needless trauma. She deserves space, privacy and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained.
"She wrote to me back in July. She didn't ask for special treatment, even though we'd been working on her release from day one. She requested, a simple quote, 'Please don't forget about me and the other American detainees,' " Biden added.
Biden said the United States is still working to bring home Paul Whelan, who has been jailed in Russia since 2018 on charges of espionage.
"While we celebrate Brittney’s homecoming, we remain committed to seeing Paul Whelan released. We will not relent in our efforts until Paul is home with family. We will not stop working to bring home every U.S. citizen wrongfully detained," Vice President Kamala Harris said on social media.
Cherrelle Griner thanked Biden and the administration for their efforts.
"So over the last nine months, you all have been so privy to one of the darkest moments of my life, and so today I'm just standing here overwhelmed with emotions, but the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration," Cherrelle Griner said.
Brittney Griner had been arrested in February
Griner, an eight-time WNBA all-star center and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was convicted Aug. 4 and sentenced to nine years in prison after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Griner admitted she had the canisters in her luggage but testified she had inadvertently packed them in haste and that she had no criminal intent.
The U.S. government had repeatedly said Griner, 31, was wrongfully detained.
Bout, 55, nicknamed the "Merchant of Death," is a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel who, according to U.S. officials, was trying to sell weapons to be used against Americans. He was serving a 25-year sentence at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois, and was set to be released in August 2029, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Why Paul Whelan was not released
Whelan, a former Marine was detained in Russia December 2018. U.S. officials said it was requested that Whelan be released along with Griner, but that was rejected.
"It is so important to me that it is clear that we do not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom. As I have often remarked, Brittney's and Paul's cases were never really intertwined. It has always been a strong possibility that one might be freed without the other," Whelan's brother David, said in an email to the media. "The sentiments I shared in April about Trevor are unchanged: this is the event we wish for so much for our own family. She will be reunited with her family. Brittney is free. And Paul is still a hostage."