Brittney Griner, the American basketball star detained by Russian authorities in February, has returned safely to the United States after being released from custody in a prisoner exchange.
Griner, 32, “arrived at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas early Friday … and was taken to Brooke Army Medical Center for a routine evaluation,” a State Department official told CNN.
US officials who met with Griner said she was “in good spirits” and “very gracious,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told CNN. Griner got off the plane shortly after 5:30 a.m. ET at Kelly Field.
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“So happy to have Brittney back on US soil. Welcome home BG!” tweeted Roger Carstens, a State Department official who traveled with Griner, Friday morning.
Griner’s release came after a US-Russia prisoner swap involving international arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was arrested in 2008 in Thailand and extradited to the US in 2010.
Bout’s commute was completed only after US officials on Thursday spotted Griner on the Abu Dhabi airport tarmac where the exchange took place, the White House said; President Joe Biden signed Bout’s official commutation on Dec. 2, the document posted on the Justice Department’s website shows.
A joint statement from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia said the Gulf countries played a role in mediating the exchange between the US and Russia.
The exchange is not a sign of improvements in US-Russia relations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday.
Griner’s arrest and conviction played out against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and brought more attention to the plight of other Americans in Russian custody, including Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. Whelan’s release could not be secured in the latest prisoner swap, and Reed returned to the United States in April after a nearly three-year stint.
The Biden administration will continue to negotiate with Russia to secure Whelan’s release, he said Friday. The Russians have what they want in this world, and Moscow knows that eventually the two sides will come to a “mutually acceptable settlement if they keep talking to us,” a senior administration official told CNN.
Biden said efforts to bring Griner home required “tough and tough negotiations” while thanking members of his administration who were involved.
“This is a day we have worked towards for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release,” he said on Thursday.
The final agreement was reached over 48 hours, senior US administration officials said, launching the process to transfer Griner from the penal colony where she was serving a lengthy sentence. Biden gave final approval to the prisoner swap that freed Griner last week, an official familiar with the matter said.
Bout has returned to Russia, the Russian foreign ministry said Thursday. The prisoner exchange with Griner was successfully completed at Abu Dhabi Airport on Thursday, the ministry said.
Griner’s family thanked Biden and his administration in a statement Thursday, as well as former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, whose Richardson Center worked on behalf of the family to help secure Griner’s release. They also expressed their gratitude for the outpouring of public support they received.
“We sincerely thank you all for the kind words, thoughts and prayers – including Paul and the Whelan family who have been so generous in their support for Brittney and our family during what we know is a heartbreaking time ,” the statement said.
“We pray for the speedy and safe return of Paul and all Americans who have been wrongfully detained.”
As Griner’s return has been hailed as a diplomatic achievement, officials and supporters expressed disappointment that Whelan could not come home as well.
Whelan, a citizen of the United States, Ireland, Britain and Canada, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who claimed he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges which he vehemently denied. The US State Department has declared him to be wrongfully detained.
Russia handled the Whelan and Griner cases differently based on what each was charged with, she said, and indicated recently that it would only negotiate on Griner, even as the Biden administration made offers to release Whelan. released as part of this agreement.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said Thursday. “Unfortunately, for completely illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And although we still haven’t managed to secure Paul’s release, we’re not giving up. We will never give up.”
Whelan was happy Griner was released but “disappointed” the Biden administration hasn’t done more to free him, he told CNN Thursday by phone from a penal colony in a remote part of Russia.
“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said.
The Biden administration has ideas for “new forms of offers” to try with the Russians to secure Whelan’s release, a senior administration official told CNN on Thursday. It recognizes that the US needs to provide “something more, something different” from what it has provided so far, the official said, not ruling out offering a Russian spy in US custody in exchange potential prisoner.
“This president is even willing to pay a very heavy price,” the official said.
The Whelan family was happy that Griner had been brought home but “sadly” he was left behind, they said Thursday. The Biden administration told Whelan’s family that she had been released before Griner’s announcement, Paul’s brother David Whelan told CNN.
A glimpse of Griner’s time in Russian custody emerged Friday through a video released by RIA News Telegram.
A small card bearing Griner’s photo is zip-tied to a white metal bed frame in a bunk room seen in an undated video. No location given. The bed is covered in white sheets, one with a deep blue stripe, and is among the five beds seen in the room with pink walls and stark white curtains for four windows.
In another clip, Griner wears a short haircut – minus the now famous dreadlocks – as she pushes along a food line on a tray with two dishes, apparently from among dozens of small plates and bowls that can be seen on shelves open attendance. Griner sits there next to a woman at a small square table, raising an acre to her mouth, a still image shows.
Then, in a different bright room, Griner wears a dark scarf while sitting across from a woman and writing with a pen on paper, the RIA News Telegram reel shows. Again in a headscarf, the US basketball star in another frame holds a phone and, after an exchange with a woman, raises her head and smiles.
In a final outdoor scene, Griner leans over a table writing on paper while a woman wearing a hat with ear flaps speaks, the video shows.
Griner’s Russian lawyer said she cut her hair while in a penal colony to make life easier during the Russian winter. Maria Blagovolina told ESPN – and confirmed to CNN – that Griner had cut her hair almost two weeks ago when she arrived at the prison. Griner told her attorneys that when she washed her hair she would get cold and catch a cold, Blagovolina said.
Most of the women in the penal colony worked during the day sewing uniforms, but Griner could not sit at a work table because of her height (she is 6-foot-9) and her hands were too -large to manage the sewing. Instead, Griner carried fabric all day, her attorney said.
Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA and is a six-time all-star and two-time defensive player of the year.
For years she played in the offseason for the Russian women’s basketball team, until she was arrested on drug smuggling charges at an airport in the Moscow region in February.
Griner revealed that she had inadvertently packed the cannabis oil found in her luggage. She was sentenced to nine years in prison in early August and transferred to a penal colony in Mordovia in mid-November after losing her appeal.
On Friday, Phoenix Mercury President Vince Kozar addressed the question of whether players should continue to play in certain countries during the WNBA offseason.
“The players have incredible power in how they choose to make their living and where they choose to play,” he said on CNN. “It’s fair to say that a lot of players, you know, have to consider their safety when they look at where they go to make their living abroad.”
“My goal is that no players would have to go abroad,” he said. “My goal is for players to be able to play here in the WNBA and make a living, and that’s what we’re working toward here in Phoenix and 11 markets around the country.”