WASHINGTON, Dec 8 (Reuters) – U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has been released in a prisoner swap with Russia in exchange for Viktor Bout, a former arms dealer, and was heading back to the United States, ending what President Joe Biden on Thursday called months of “hell” for her and her wife.
The swap was arranged after talks spanning months during a time of high tensions between the two countries in the wake of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine. The exchange took place in the United Arab Emirates at Abu Dhabi airport, where the two walked past each other on a tarmac, a U.S. administration official said.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances,” Biden told reporters at the White House, adding she would arrive within the next 24 hours. “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release.”
Biden said the United States would continue to work to free Paul Whelan, a former Marine also held in Russia.
The Russian foreign ministry said it traded Griner for Bout, 55, a Russian citizen who in 2012 was given a 25-year prison sentence by a U.S. court on multiple charges related to his arms-dealing career.
Griner, 32, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and star of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Mercury, was arrested on Feb. 17 at a Moscow airport in February when vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia, were found in her luggage. She was sentenced on Aug. 4 to nine years in a penal colony on charges of possessing and smuggling drugs.
The UAE president and Saudi crown prince led mediation efforts that secured Griner’s release, a UAE-Saudi joint statement said. The swap was one of the most high-profile and rare examples of cooperation between Washington and Moscow since the invasion, which occurred a week after Griner’s detention.
The administration official said the arrangements came together within the past 48 hours after Biden had made the decision to exchange Bout in recent weeks.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone with Griner from the Oval Office, along with Griner’s wife, Cherelle. The White House released a photo of the telephone call.
“These past few months have been hell for Brittney,” and for her wife, family and teammates, Biden said.
Griner had pleaded guilty, but said she had made an “honest mistake” and had not meant to break the law. Last month she was taken to a penal colony in the Russian region of Mordovia to serve her prison sentence.
Cherelle Griner, who said she was “overwhelmed with emotions,” thanked Biden and members of his administration for their work to free her wife.
“Today my family is whole. BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home,” she added, referring to her wife’s initials.
Biden lamented that the United States was unable to win the release of Whelan.
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up,” Biden said.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a news conference with the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland. ” The choice was one or none.”
The administration official said the United States had proposed multiple different options for Whelan’s release and that Russia’s “sham espionage” charges against him were the reason Moscow treated his case differently. U.S. officials spoke to him at length on Thursday about the Griner deal.
Whelan told CNN in an interview: “I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up. I was arrested for a crime that never occurred.”
Whelan’s brother, David, said the U.S. government alerted his family in advance, giving them time to prepare mentally for the disappointment.
“I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home,” he said. “The Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”
Biden thanked the United Arab Emirates for helping facilitate Griner’s return but did not mention Saudi Arabia in his remarks.
Griner’s teammates and other WNBA players cheered her release.
Bout was one of the world’s most wanted men before his arrest, and was variously dubbed “the merchant of death” and “the sanctions buster” for his ability to get around arms embargoes.
For almost two decades, Bout became the world’s most notorious arms dealer, selling weaponry to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia and South America. For experts on the Russian security services, Moscow’s lasting interest in Bout hint strongly at Russian intelligence ties.
(Reporting by Nandita Bose and Humeyra PamukWriting by Jeff Mason and Doina ChiacuEditing by Will Dunham, Heather Timmons, Frances Kerry and Nick Macfie)