U.S. Basketball star Brittney Griner was released from Russian detention yesterday (Dec. 8th) in a prisoner exchange for international arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the "Merchant of Death."
The dramatic swap took place in Abu Dhabi airport with the U.S. and Russia both using private planes to transport the prisoners. President Biden later made an announcement that Griner was safe and in good spirits on her way home.
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
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and WNBA star considered by some to be the greatest female basketball player of all time, had spent nearly ten months in prison on drug charges after cannabis oil was found in her luggage as she passed through the Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. Griner was on her way to join Russia's EuroLeague team, which she had played for since 2014 during WNBA off-season. She was arrested only a week before Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Bout had served 12 years of his 25 year sentence in American prison. The gunrunner nicknamed "the Merchant of Death" sold arms to warlords and various factions including the Taliban, becoming one of the world's most wanted men before his dramatic arrest in a Bangkok luxury hotel in 2008. His capture took place after a US sting in which undercover agents pretended to be rebels with the Colombian group Farc and filmed Bout trying to sell weapons to be used against Americans.
Bout reportedly kept a photo of Putin in his cell. Russian dissident and former MP Vladimir Osechkin was quoted by the BBC as saying that Russia prioritized his release because they feared he would start providing information about Russian intelligence, whom it is believed Bout may have worked for while arms dealing.
The Biden administration had been under increasing pressure to ensure Griner's release, especially after she was moved to a penal colony last month. The White House proposed a prisoner exchange in July, requesting the release of both Griner and Paul Whelan, an ex-marine held on espionage charges whom the U.S. also designated as wrongfully detained, but Russia refused to include him in the deal. Whelan, speaking from a penal colony, said he believed Russia "put me at a level higher than what they did with...Brittney" because of the espionage charges. He also criticized the U.S. government for not doing more to secure his release, though Biden has vowed not to give up.
Others have criticized the deal on the basis that it will make Americans a target in the future if it's shown that the U.S. government is willing to bargain for them.
Griner's wife Cherelle praised the Biden administration for its work to bring Griner home. "I'm just standing here overwhelmed with emotions...Today my family is whole."