American Brittney Griner Released by Russia in Prisoner Swap for Arms Dealer Viktor Bout

Zachary Stieber
By Zachary Stieber
December 8, 2022US News
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American basketball player Brittney Griner has been released by Russian authorities in a prisoner swap for arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Griner, 32, was en route to the United States, President Joe Biden said on Dec. 8.

“She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home,” he told reporters at a briefing at the White House in Washington.

“This is a day we have worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release,” Biden added. “It took painstaking and intense negotiations and I want to thank all the hardworking public servants across my administration who worked tirelessly to secure her release.”

Griner, a women’s basketball player who traveled to Russia to play for a team there, was arrested in February after customs officials found drugs in her luggage.

Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges while saying she had not meant to pack the canisters of cannabis oil in her luggage. She was sentenced to nine years in prison. She began serving time at a penal colony in Mordovia in November, her lawyers told news outlets.

Bout, 55, was serving a 25-year sentence. He was convicted in 2011.

Bout was working to sell millions of dollars worth of weapons, including 800 surface-to-air missiles and 30,000 AK-47s, to Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, a designated foreign terrorist group based on Colombia, to kill Americans there, prosecutors said.

“As the evidence at trial showed, Viktor Bout was ready to sell a weapons arsenal that would be the envy of some small countries,” Preet Bharara, the then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement at the time. “He aimed to sell those weapons to terrorists for the purpose of killing Americans. With today’s swift verdict, justice has been done and a very dangerous man will be behind bars.”

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Former Soviet military officer and arms trafficking suspect Viktor Bout (C) deplanes after arriving at Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y., on Nov. 16, 2010. (U.S. Department of Justice via Getty Images)
Paul Whelan
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying and arrested in Russia, stands inside a defendants’ cage during a hearing at a court in Moscow on Aug. 23, 2019. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Paul Whelan

The Biden administration over the summer said it pitched a prisoner swap involving both Griner and businessman Paul Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges despite claims of innocence, but officials declined to say who would be freed if an agreement was reached.

Biden said Thursday it was “not a choice of which American to bring home” and that Russia was treating Whelan, a Marine veteran, differently for “totally illegitimate reasons.”

Biden said his administration would keep trying to secure the veteran’s release.

U.S. authorities had said both Griner and Whelan were wrongfully detained.

“We’ve made a proposal, and we urge the Russians to move positively on that proposal so we can get these two individuals home,” John Kirby, a White House spokesperson, said at the time.

Paul Whelen’s brother, David Whelan, told news outlets that government officials informed them on Wednesday that Whelan would not be released.

“That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul,” he said.

Other U.S. citizens imprisoned in Russia include Marc Fogel, who was caught with cannabis in his luggage like Griner. Trevor Reed, another American, was swapped for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko earlier this year.

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U.S. President Joe Biden (R) speaks on the release of Olympian and WNBA player Brittney Griner from Russian custody, at the White House in Washington on Dec. 8, 2022. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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Cherelle Griner (L), wife of Brittney Griner, speaks at the White House in Washington on Dec. 8, 2022. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

‘Gratitude’

Biden, Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a phone call with Griner as the basketball player traveled back to the United States.

Griner initially landed in the United Arab Emirates, with Biden thanking officials there for assisting with the transit.

Griner told Biden in a handwritten letter in July that she was “terrified I might be here forever.” Griner added, “I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees.” B

Biden and Harris spoke with Cherelle Griner during the ordeal.

“I was grateful for the call, he says she’s top priority but I want to see it,” Cherelle Griner said at the time. “At this point I don’t even know who I’d be getting back.”

Cherelle Griner said after the release that she was overwhelmed with emotions.

Primarily, she said, she was feeling “sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration.”

From The Epoch Times

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