Russia released American basketball player Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic prisoner swap in which the United States freed Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, US officials said.
President Joe Biden said in remarks from the White House that Griner was safe, in American hands and flying back.
“The last few months have been hell for Brittney,” who was in good spirits nonetheless, Biden said.
Cherelle Griner, the basketball player’s wife, was present during the presidential announcement.
“Today my family is whole,” he said.
The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieves an important goal for President Joe Biden, but it came at a heavy price — and left behind an American jailed for nearly four years in Russia. Griner called for the release of businessman Paul Whelan, and Biden said he was “not forgotten” and “will never give up” in efforts to win his release.
“We are not forgetting Paul Whelan,” Biden declared. “We will continue to negotiate in good faith to obtain his freedom.”
Whelan’s brother, David, said in a statement that he is “extremely pleased” with Griner’s release, though slightly disappointed on behalf of his family. He thanked the White House for giving the Whelan family advance notice, and said they don’t blame the government for the deal.
“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible instead of waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he added.
The deal, the second exchange with Russia in eight months, led to the release of the most prominent American detained abroad.
Griner is a two-time Olympic medalist, and her imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the wrongful arrest population.
The authorization to release the arms dealer nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” reveals the intense pressure that was on the US government to win Griner’s freedom, particularly after the recent resolution of his criminal case and transfer to a penal colony. .
Russian and US officials had expressed cautious optimism after months of tense negotiations. Biden expressed hope in November that Russia would agree to a deal after the midterm elections. A senior Russian official said last week that a deal could be finalized before the end of the year.
The fact that the deal was a one-for-one trade came as a surprise because for months U.S. authorities have said they are determined to free both Griner and Whelan, a Michigan business executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on charges of espionage who according to his family and the government are unfounded.
Bout is a former lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Army who is considered by the Department of Justice to be one of the most prolific traffickers in the world. His exploits were portrayed in a Hollywood movie and he was serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons for use against Americans.
This story was originally published on December 8, 2022 8:15 a.m.
Source: El Nuevo Herald