10 Dec 2022

Brittney Griner lands in US after prisoner swap with Russia

7:23 am on 10 December 2022
American basketball star Brittney Griner gets out of a plane after landing at the JBSA-Kelly Field Annex runway on 9 December, 2022 in San Antonio, after she was released from a Russian prison in exchange for a notorious arms dealer.

American basketball star Brittney Griner gets out of a plane in San Antonio, Texas, after arriving back in the US from captivity in Russia. Photo: SUZANNE CORDEIRO

By Max Matza, BBC News

Ten months after she left the US to play basketball in Russia, WNBA star Brittney Griner has landed in her home state of Texas.

Griner was jailed for carrying cannabis oil at a Moscow airport in February, and was exchanged for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout on Thursday.

She was flown into San Antonio, where she will receive medical care.

The White House's John Kirby told MSNBC on Friday morning that Griner is in "good spirits" and "good health".

President Joe Biden first announced that Griner was returning home on Thursday. Her wife, Cherelle Griner, who attended Biden's announcement at the White House, was expected to meet her in San Antonio.

"Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we're thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement about her return.

US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner looks from inside a defendants' cage before a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on July 26, 2022. - Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and WNBA champion, was detained at Moscow airport in February on charges of carrying in her luggage vape cartridges with cannabis oil, which could carry a 10-year prison sentence. (Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP)

Brittney Griner, in detention in Russia earlier this year Photo: AFP / Alexander Zemlianichenko

She is one of the best-known sportswomen in America. During the US basketball season the double Olympic champion was a star centre for Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA.

Her reason for flying to Moscow was to play in Russia during the off-season in the US. During her trial in Russia, she said the cannabis oil found in her bag had been an "honest mistake".

The Biden administration proposed a prisoner exchange in July, aware that Moscow had long sought the release of Bout, a convicted arms trafficker known as the Merchant of Death. He has been held in an American prison for 12 years.

Footage on Russian state media showed them crossing on the tarmac with their respective teams. In the video, apparently provided by Russian security services, Bout was warmly greeted by two Russian officials as Griner, who is 6ft 9in (206cm), looks on. Part of the swap was then edited out, before showing the two parties going their separate ways.

"The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland," the Moscow foreign ministry said in a statement.

Live television in Russia showed Bout arriving in Moscow. Pictures showed him hugging his mother and wife at the airport tarmac.

"I made it. That's the main thing," he told reporters at the airport.

"In the middle of the night they simply woke me up and said 'Get your things together,'" he added.

Griner, who turned 32 in October, will be welcomed in Houston with a light show, the city's Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

In a tweet, the US special envoy for hostage affairs, Roger D Carstens, welcomed Griner home. "So happy to have Brittney back on US soil," he said.

It is unclear how long she will remain in San Antonio before travelling to Houston, which is about 320km to the east.

An unnamed US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Griner was expected to receive treatment at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.

It is thought she will join the Department of Defence programme known as Pisa (Post Isolation Support Activities), which is reportedly designed to help former detainees adapt back to normal life.

On Thursday, state department spokesman Ned Price said the government would speak to Griner about what she needs.

"She may seek the assistance that the US is going to provide, and we are going to make all of that available to her," he told MSNBC.

Prisoner swap deal receives mixed reactions

Several Republicans criticised the White House for agreeing to the deal.

"What a 'stupid' and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!!!" former President Donald Trump wrote on his Truth Social website.

"This is a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it endangers American lives."

And Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger - a high profile critic of Trump's - wrote on Twitter that the Biden administration had shown "weakness" by agreeing to release Bout.

The swap involved two private planes bringing Bout and Griner to Abu Dhabi airport from Moscow and Washington, before flying them home.

When negotiations began to secure Griner's release during the summer, the US said it had made clear it wanted ex-Marine Paul Whelan to be included in an exchange.

On Friday, Russian president Vladimir Putin said at a news conference that future prisoner swaps between Russia and the US were possible, and that the two countries' intelligence services remain in contact.

But Whelan, jailed in 2018 on suspicion of spying, was not included in Thursday's swap, dashing his family's hopes.

In a phone call from the penal colony where he is being held, Whelan told CNN he was "greatly disappointed" more had not been done to free him, as he said he had carried out no crime.

"I don't understand why I'm still sitting here," he said. "I was led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon."

Carstens told Whelan in a tweet to "stay strong and don't lose faith".

"We are working to get you home," the special envoy said.

Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who is expected to become the next Speaker of the House of Representatives wrote on Twitter that failing to secure Whelan's release as part of the deal was "unconscionable".

Bout sold arms to warlords and rogue governments, becoming one of the world's most wanted men. His exploits inspired the 2005 Hollywood film Lord of War.

His secretive career was brought to an end by an elaborate US sting in 2008, when he was arrested at a hotel in the Thai capital Bangkok, to the anger of the Russian government.

He was extradited two years later and has spent the past 12 years in an American jail for conspiring to support terrorists and kill Americans.

Footage released by Russian state media showed him disembarking from his flight carrying a bouquet of flowers before embracing his mother and his wife.

Speaking after her husband's return home, Bout's wife Alla told the state news agency Tass that her husband was well-fed and "treated very nobly" during the prisoner swap.

"He was not shackled, not handcuffed, he was treated very generously," she said.


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs