HomeWorldWNBA star Griner released in exchange for fight against Russian arms dealer

WNBA star Griner released in exchange for fight against Russian arms dealer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Russia released WNBA star Brittney Griner in a dramatic high-level prisoner swap Thursday, and the United States released notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the White House said. The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a major goal for President Joe Biden but came at a high price, leaving behind an American jailed for nearly four years in Russia.

“He’s safe, he’s on a plane, he’s on his way home,” Biden said from the White House, where he was joined by Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and administration officials.

The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, secured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose months-long incarceration on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the wrongful detainee population.

Biden’s authorization to release a Russian criminal once dubbed “the merchant of death” underscored the mounting pressure his administration faced to bring Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of his criminal case and his subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the exchange, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout was flown home.

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Russian and US officials had expressed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of tense negotiations. with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would come to an agreement now that the midterm elections had been completed. A senior Russian official said last week that it was possible to reach an agreement before the end of the year.

Still, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one trade came as a surprise given that US officials had for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on spying charges that his family and the US government have said are baseless.

“We have not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will continue to negotiate in good faith for Paul’s release.”

Whelan’s brother, David, said in a statement that he was “overjoyed” by Griner’s release, but also disappointed for his family. He credited the White House for giving the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not blame officials for making the deal.

“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home and make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.

By freeing Bout, the United States freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges of conspiring to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons that US officials say would be used against Americans.

The Biden administration was finally willing to trade Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. The arrest of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to an unprecedented whirlwind of public attention for an individual arrest case, not to mention intense pressure on the White House.

Griner’s arrest in February made her highest profile American incarcerated abroad. Her status as an openly gay black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and made each event a matter of international importance.

His case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but also emerged as a major turning point in US-Russia diplomacy at a time of war-induced deterioration in relations. from Moscow against Ukraine.

In an extraordinary move during secret negotiations, publicly revealed blinken in July that the United States had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Although he did not specify the terms, people familiar with the matter said the United States had offered Bout.

Such a public proposal drew a rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to resolve such cases in private and risked weakening the US government’s bargaining hand for this and future deals by making the administration seem too desperate. But the ad was also meant to communicate to the public that Biden was doing what he could and to ensure pressure on the Russians.

In addition to efforts by US officials, the release also followed months of clandestine negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his top deputy, Mickey Bergman.

Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February when customs officials said they found vaporizer canisters filled with cannabis oil in her luggage. He pleaded guilty in July.although he still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s court system does not automatically end a case.

He acknowledged in court that he owned the boats, but said he had no criminal intent and that their presence in his luggage was due to hasty packing.

Before being sentenced on August 4 and receiving a punishment that her lawyers said was out of character for the offense, an emotional Griner apologized “for the mistake I made and the embarrassment I caused you.” She added: “I hope her decision doesn’t end my life.”

His supporters had been silent for weeks after his arrest, but that approach changed in May after the State Department designated her as unlawfully detained. A separate trade, Navy veteran Trevor Reed by Konstantin Yaroshenkoa Russian pilot convicted in the US of a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, raised hopes that additional such exchanges might be in the works.

Whelan has been detained in Russia since December 2018. The US government also classified him as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.

Whelan was not included in the Reed prisoner swap, increasing pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that any deal that brought Griner home also included him.

Associated Press writers Colleen Long and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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