Several news outlets reported that professional basketball player Brittney Griner was released from a Russian prison as part of a prisoner swap. President Joe Biden announced on Twitter that he had spoken to Griner and that she was safe and on her way home.
The basketball star has been held in Russian jails and then prison after being convicted of possessing a small amount of cannabis in the form of a vape. She was sentenced to nine years, a much longer sentence than previous Americans before her. Once convicted she was sent to a penal colony. She has been held for 10 months.
“Brittney Griner’s release is a sign of Moscow’s desperation to regain control. Her exchange comes in the context of Putin making a series of other gestures indicating he’s open to talks,” said Matthew Schmidt, associate professor of National Security, International Affairs, and Political Science, at the University of New Haven. “Her release gives Putin an opening to appear magnanimous (even though he exchanged her for a notorious arms trafficker) and, this is crucial, back in control of a war that he’s not been able to steer his direction since February.”
The athlete was exchanged for Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death.”
Griner never claimed to be innocent and indeed pleaded guilty at her trial. However, her celebrity status and the ongoing war between Russian and Ukraine caused her to become embroiled in a major diplomatic conflict.
President Biden spoke briefly from the Roosevelt Room of the White House. The New York Times reported that he said, “She’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held in intolerable circumstances.” He added, “Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones – and she should have been there all along.”
Her wife Cherelle Griner was with Biden during the announcement. “Today, I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions,” she said.
“Women Grow is extremely happy to hear that Brittney Griner is being returned home and is grateful to our government for working on her behalf. This is an extraordinary gift for her family, loved ones, community, and fans. In addition, her case has greatly amplified the plight of those imprisoned on cannabis-related charges and the need for cannabis legalization on a global scale. We also hope this continues the forward movement toward freeing all those incarcerated for cannabis worldwide,” said Women Grow President Gia Morón.
The Times also reported “that Paul Whelan, another American held prisoner, was not released on Thursday despite months of efforts by U.S. diplomats to include him as part of the deal with the Russians for the exchange with Mr. Bout.”