9 Dec 2022

US basketballer Brittney Griner released from Russian prison

5:20 am on 9 December 2022

US basketball player Brittney Griner has been released from prison in Russia and is on her way home, President Joe Biden said at the White House.

US basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, waits for the verdict inside a defendants' cage during a hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on 4 August, 2022.

Brittney Griner Photo: AFP / Pool

The United States agreed to release imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, Biden said, in a swap of prisoners that ends nearly 10 months of detainment for Griner.

"Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home," Biden said. "Held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along. This is a day we worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstaking and intense negotiations."

From Russia, Griner, 32, landed in the United Arab Emirates, where she boarded a plane for the United States.

"These past few months have been hell for Brittney and (wife) Cherelle," Biden said. "She's relieved to finally be heading home. The fact remains she's lost months of her life. She deserves space, privacy and time with her loved ones to recover and heal."

A two-time Olympic gold medalist and active WNBA player with the Phoenix Mercury, Griner was detained at an airport near Moscow on 17 February. She admitted in a courtroom to bringing marijuana vape cartridges in her luggage, as prescribed by her doctor.

"She wrote to me back in July, she didn't ask for special treatment," Biden said. "She requested a simple quote, 'Please don't forget about me and the other American detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home.' We've never forgotten about Brittney."

Griner was convicted of criminal drug possession and sentenced to more than nine years in prison. Last month, Russian officials informed Griner's attorney she had been relocated to a penal colony, where forced labour shifts for prisoners commonly last between 12 and 14 hours per day.

The deal to free Griner had been negotiated for several months. Russia's deputy foreign minister claimed that there was renewed "activity" in negotiations to free Griner one week before Thanksgiving. The US publicly denied those talks were active.

In initial public disclosures about negotiations, US officials insisted on the release of Michigan corporate security officer Paul Whelan, jailed since December 2018 in Russia on espionage charges. But the White House described the prisoner swap confirmed Thursday as "one for one," Bout for Griner.

Bout is a former Soviet Army lieutenant was sentenced in 2012 to 25 years for conspiring to sell tens of millions of dollars in arms that US officials said were used against Americans.

Flanked by Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House, a grateful Cherelle Griner thanked their administration for their efforts and committed to future work to help bring home wrongly detained prisoners.

"B.G. is not here to say this, but I will gladly speak on her behalf and say that B.G. and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today," she said. "... We do understand that there are still people out here who are enduring what I endured the last nine months of missing tremendously their loved ones."

Words of support for Griner began to flow on Twitter Thursday morning from her fellow WNBA players.

Said Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart: "BG is FREE!!! 294 days and she is coming home!!!"

The 2022 WNBA season begins May 19.

- Reuters