Brittney Griner – President Biden says WNBA starchas been freed from a Russian prison.
Griner has been freed from a Russian penal colony after the United States made a prisoner exchange for her following her February detention and August conviction on drug charges.
The U.S. government has long resisted prisoner swaps out of concern that it could encourage the imprisonment of more Americans abroad.
The exchange for Bout should not be interpreted as a new normal practice, but that there are times where there are no alternatives, a Biden official said.
The official said the administration felt a “moral obligation,” as well as a policy obligation, to bring people who are being held hostage or detained home.
“We start by asking ourselves this question: How is it acceptable for someone like Brittney Griner to be put through sham proceedings and forced to spend [time] … in a Russian penal colony, in horrific circumstances that she did not deserve? And we regard that as unacceptable,” the official said.
The exchange did not include former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who remains imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges that the U.S. says are false.
“While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up,” Biden said Thursday. “We will never give up.”
Senior administration officials told reporters on a conference call later that the agreement to secure Griner’s release was made in recent days after months of talks and a variety of proposals — proposals that were aimed at also trying to secure Whelan’s release.
Those who have who have worked with Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner throughout her basketball career expressed relief and gratitude Thursday morning that she is headed home to her family.
Standing along side Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, at the White House, Biden said it was a day that “we worked toward for a long time. “
“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 conditions,” Biden said from the Roosevelt Room.
Biden spoke with Griner from the Oval Office just before making the announcement. He said she was in good spirits, but was experiencing “trauma” and would need time to heal.
“Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along,” Biden said.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday in a press release that Griner was swapped at the Abu Dhabi airport for convicted Russian arms trader Viktor Bout.
“As a result of intense efforts, we managed to agree with the American side on organization of an exchange of Bout for Griner,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland.”
“This was the best news to wake up to today. I can’t stop crying!” the New York Liberty’s Sandy Brondello, who coached Griner for eight seasons with Phoenix, told ESPN.
“It has been a terrible ordeal for BG, but thankful for President Biden and Vice President [Kamala] Harris and everyone that has helped get her home.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who coached Griner at the Tokyo Olympics, also had an emotional reaction to Thursday’s news.
“I was shocked actually … and then, honestly, I cried,” Staley said on ESPN’s “First Take.” “I cried, and I’m a girl from Philly.
We don’t cry very easily. But I cried because this is the moment that we’ve all been praying for, for BG. And I’m just happy, like God is real.”
The Mercury won the WNBA title in 2014 with Brondello at the helm and Griner, their No. 1 overall pick in 2013, as one of the team’s key players.
They also competed in the 2021 WNBA Finals, falling to the Chicago Sky.
“Miraculously, mercifully, the count of days detained has ended at 294, and our friend, our sister is headed back home where she belongs,” the Mercury and Phoenix Suns said in a joint statement.
“The emotions for our organization, just like for our fans and so many across the world, are those of joyous celebration, deep gratitude, grief for the time lost, and sincere hope for all families still awaiting the return of a loved one.”
Said Griner’s Mercury teammate Brianna Turner: “BG is so much more than a athlete. The primary concern is making sure her mental health is progressing and she’s able to recover from the past 294 days.
She could never step foot on a court again and I will still support her relentlessly.”
Prior to her WNBA career, Griner was an All-American at Baylor and led the Bears to the 2010 Women’s Final Four and 2012 national championship, when they went 40-0.
“God is good. Prayers are powerful,” LSU’s Kim Mulkey, who coached Griner at Baylor, told ESPN. “Brittney is on her way home where she belongs. Our prayers remain with her and her family as they recover and heal together.”
Like many WNBA players, Griner, 32, played overseas. In February, she was headed to Russia to rejoin her UMMC Ekaterinburg team when she was detained in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for having vape cartridges that contained cannabis oil in her luggage.
Since then, the WNBA, its players’ union and the NBA have worked with the State Department to try to get Griner back to the United States.
“It has been a total team effort,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters Thursday in discussing Griner’s release.
“We use that analogy in sports all the time. But we could not have done this without the NBA, without Brittany’s agent, lawyers, the whole ecosystem around women’s sports.
But again, this came down to the leadership of our government and our State Department, and they got this done and I’m so grateful to them.