Washington —the WNBA star who spent months in Russian prisons on drug charges was released on Thursday in a one-on-one prisoner exchange for international arms dealer ending an ordeal that led to intense high-level negotiations between the US and the Kremlin to secure her freedom.
“She’s safe. She’s on a plane,” President Biden saidannouncing the exchange. “She is on her way home. After months of being unfairly detained in Russia, held in unbearable conditions, 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 long worked towards it. We never stopped pushing for her release.”
CBS News was the first to report the exchange, which took place in the United Arab Emirates, citing a US official. The exchange agreement negotiated with Moscow in recent weeks has been finally approved by Mr. Biden just in over the past week, according to sources familiar with the deal.
Five former US officials told CBS News of the agreement was reached from last Thursday.
The president said he spoke to Griner by phone from the Oval Office, where he was accompanied by Griner’s wife Cherelle, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Under standard procedure for released American prisoners, Griner was expected to undergo a prompt medical evaluation.
Mr Biden said he was “happy to say Brittney is in a good mood” and that she was looking forward to going home. The president dismissed the “show trial in Russia” that landed her in jail, saying that “she had not asked for special treatment.”
To secure Griner’s release, the president ordered Bout to be freed and returned to Russia. Mr Biden signed the commutation order shortening Bout’s 25-year federal prison sentence.
Notably, the Griner-for-Bout exchange leaves the retired US Marineimprisoned in Russia. Whelan has been in Russian custody for nearly four years. He that the US has called false.
“We have not forgotten Paul Whelan,” Biden said Thursday, adding “we will never give up” to secure his release. U.S. officials told reporters that during talks with the Russians it became clear that the prospect of securing the release of both Griner and Whelan in exchange for Bout was a nonstarter, with one saying the U.S. had “a choice between bringing home of a certain American – Brittney Griner – or not take one home.”
Whelan told CNN in a phone call Thursday that he was happy Griner was free, but said he was “deeply disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest approaches.”
Griner, a 32-year-old star center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, was detained at a Russian airport in February and later pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the discovery of cannabis-derived oil cartridges in her luggage. Griner said it was not her intention to take the cartridges with her when she traveled to the country to play in a Russian basketball league during the WNBA offseason.
After five months of stalled diplomacy and several permutations of potential exchange deals — including an unreported US offer last summer to return two prisoners to Russia for the two Americans — sources say the one-to-one exchange in the course of the last two weeks.
Whelan, who once worked as a corporate security contractor, was in Moscow for a friend’s wedding when he was detained at a hotel in December 2018. Russian authorities later sentenced him to 16 years in prison for espionage – a charge the US and Whelan denied. This month marks the fourth anniversary of Whelan’s time in Russian custody.
Bout, who was last held in a federal prison in Marion, Illinois, was arrested by Thailand’s Drug Enforcement Agency following a sting operation in 2008. He was convicted of conspiracy to kill Americans and began his 25-year sentence ten year ago. .
Griner’s arrest coincided with the start of February, and all US relations with the Kremlin have been complicated by that conflict. The US has said that both Griner and Whelan have been “unjustly detained”, and officials suspect Russia used the US prisoners as leverage.
Griner’s return for Bout marks the Biden administration’s second prisoner swap with Russia. In April, the US traded Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian smuggler convicted of conspiracy to import cocaine, fora former US Marine imprisoned in Russia for nearly three years.
CBS News learned last Thursday that the Griner-for-Bout swap was on the horizon, but agreed to a White House request to hold reporting as officials raised serious concerns about the fragility of the then-emerging deal.
Biden administration officials warned that disclosing the details of the trade beforehand would almost certainly result in Russia withdrawing from the deal and potentially jeopardizing Griner’s well-being.
Nancy Cordes, Ed O’Keefe, Sara Cook, Camilla Schick, Tucker Reals, Haley Ott and Melissa Quinn contributed reporting.