Houston native and WNBA star Brittney Griner has been released from Russian prison


Photo credit: Lorie Shaull, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

MOSCOW, Russia — In a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange on Thursday, Russia released Houston native and WNBA star Brittney Griner, while the United States released notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. In a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, the swap achieved Biden's top priority, but came at a high price - and left an American in prison.

“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home," Biden said from the White House, where he was accompanied by Griner's wife, Cherelle, and administration officials.

With this deal, the second such exchange with Russia in eight months, the most prominent American detained abroad was released. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose months-long imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.

After the recent resolution of Griner's criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony, Biden's authorization to release a Russian felon nicknamed "the Merchant of Death" underscored the increasing pressure his administration faced to get Griner home.

Despite that, it was surprising that the swap was one-for-one, because U.S. officials had for months expressed their desire to bring Griner home as well as Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive who has been imprisoned in Russia since December on espionage charges, which his family and the US government have said are unfounded.

“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.”

Whelan's brother David said in a statement he was “so glad” for Griner's release but also disappointed for his family. He credited the White House with giving the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not fault officials for making the deal.

Upon her arrest in February, Griner became the most high-profile American jailed abroad. In her legal saga, her status as an openly gay Black woman, imprisoned in a country hostile to the LBGTQ community, added racial, gender, and social dynamics as well as international significance.

Since December 2018, Whelan has been detained in Russia. According to the U.S. government, he was also wrongfully detained. A 16-year sentence was handed down to him in 2020.

When Whelan was not included in the Reed prisoner swap, pressure mounted on the Biden administration to include him in any deal bringing Griner home.

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