Brittney Griner Is Free
10:27 AM EST on December 8, 2022
Ten months after being arrested in a Russian airport on trumped-up drug charges, WNBA star Brittney Griner is free. Griner was released from custody in a prisoner exchange for Russian Viktor Bout, who was imprisoned in the United States, on Thursday at Abu Dhabi Airport.
"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," President Biden said in remarks from the White House.
Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, was there for the announcement. She said she was "overwhelmed by emotions" and thanked the Biden administration, the WNBPA, and Griner's agent.
Griner was arrested at a Russian airport in February for having less than an ounce of hash oil. She was sentenced to nine years in prison and last month she was moved to a prison camp in Mordovia to begin serving her sentence. The Biden administration was under increasing pressure to bring Griner home. In July, Griner sent Biden a handwritten letter in which she said she was "terrified I might be here forever." Many WNBA and NBA players and other athletes and coaches (excluding Kim Mulkey) repeatedly spoke out in support of Griner and called for her release.
U.S. officials had wanted to exchange Bout for Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, who was arrested in Russia in 2018 on espionage charges. (Whelan, who also has Irish, British, and Canadian citizenship, has denied the spying charges.) However, when it became clear that Russia would only offer Griner, the U.S. eventually moved to secure the swap, CNN reported.
“It was a choice to get Brittney or nothing,” one anonymous U.S. official told CNN.
In a statement, Whelan's family praised the deal, saying, "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."
Russia's Foreign Ministry confirmed Bout, who was convicted of selling weapons to terrorist groups—and who also sold weapons to the U.S. military—was also free.
"As a result of intense efforts, we managed to agree with the American side on organization of an exchange of Bout for Griner," the Telegram statement said, per WSJ. "The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland."
Griner, a seven-time WNBA all-star, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and all-around icon, should have never been in this situation; her horrifying experience will hopefully lead to changes in how WNBA players are treated and paid in the United States, thus making it less likely that they will spend their offseasons playing for higher salaries in leagues overseas.
For now, though, it's enough to celebrate Griner's freedom. She's finally coming home.