Brittney Griner free of Russia, swapped for infamous arms supplier By Reuters

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. basketball participant Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with unlawful possession of hashish, is escorted earlier than the decision in Khimki exterior Moscow, Russia, August 4, 2022. REUTERS/Ev

By Nandita Bose and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has been launched in a prisoner swap with Russia in alternate for arms supplier Viktor Bout and was heading residence on Thursday, ending what President Joe Biden referred to as months of “hell” for her and her spouse.

The swap was organized after months of talks throughout a time of excessive rigidity between the 2 nations after Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine.

As Griner was on a flight certain for Texas, Bout arrived in Moscow and hugged his mom and spouse after stepping onto the tarmac, tv photos confirmed.

Griner, held since every week earlier than the invasion of Ukraine, traveled from a Russian penal colony to Moscow, then to Abu Dhabi airport within the United Arab Emirates the place the alternate passed off, with the 2 strolling previous one another on the tarmac, U.S. officers mentioned.

“She’s protected, she’s on a airplane, she’s on her means residence after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held below insupportable circumstances,” Biden informed reporters on the White Home. “This can be a day we have labored towards for a very long time. We by no means stopped pushing for her launch.”

Russia rejected Biden’s try to achieve the liberty of Paul Whelan, a former Marine additionally held in Russia, forcing Biden to decide to get solely Griner out. He mentioned in his announcement, with out offering particulars, that the Russians handled Whelan’s case in another way.

“The selection earlier than us was one or none,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken informed CBS Information. “And the president determined that it was vital to a minimum of deliver Brittney residence now and proceed to work on getting Paul again, too.”

Griner, 32, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and star of the Ladies’s Nationwide Basketball Affiliation’s Phoenix Mercury, was arrested on Feb. 17 at a Moscow airport after vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is banned in Russia, had been present in her baggage.

She had pleaded responsible at her trial saying she used the cartridges to alleviate ache from sports activities accidents and had made an “trustworthy mistake”. Nonetheless, she was sentenced on Aug. 4 to 9 years in a penal colony.

Russia’s overseas ministry mentioned it traded Griner for Bout, 55, a Russian citizen who in 2012 was given a 25-year jail sentence by a U.S. courtroom on costs associated to his arms-dealing profession. For nearly 20 years, Bout had been the world’s most infamous arms supplier, promoting weapons to rogue states, rebels and warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.

“I made it. That is the primary factor,” Bout mentioned on Russian tv, including he had not been informed what would occur.

“In the midst of the night time they merely woke me up and mentioned ‘Get your issues collectively’,” he mentioned.

The swap was a uncommon occasion of cooperation between the US and Russia because the invasion of Ukraine. The 2 nations additionally swapped prisoners in April when Russia launched former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed and the US launched Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.

The preparations got here collectively inside the previous 48 hours after Biden had made the choice to alternate Bout, the White Home mentioned. A conditional grant of clemency for Bout was not accomplished till Thursday, after U.S. officers within the UAE verified Griner had arrived there.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by telephone with Griner from the Oval Workplace, together with Griner’s spouse, Cherelle. Biden mentioned Griner was in good spirits and had displayed “grit and unbelievable dignity” all through the ordeal.

“These previous few months have been hell for Brittney,” and for her spouse, household and teammates, Biden mentioned.

The UAE president and Saudi crown prince led mediation efforts that secured Griner’s launch, a UAE-Saudi joint assertion mentioned.

White Home spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre expressed gratitude that Saudi Arabia and different nations had raised the difficulty however mentioned the talks had been between Russia and the US. “There was no mediation concerned,” she mentioned.


Some Republicans criticized the Democratic president for making the swap.

Former President Donald Trump derided the alternate with out Whelan.

“What a ‘silly’ and unpatriotic embarrassment for the USA!!!” Trump wrote on social media.

“This can be a present to Vladimir Putin, and it endangers American lives,” Home of Representatives Republican chief Kevin McCarthy wrote on social media, referring to Russia’s president.

Biden mentioned it was his job as president “to make the laborious calls and shield Americans in every single place.”

Griner was one among a variety of American ladies’s basketball stars who had performed for skilled groups in Russia. Griner’s teammates and different WNBA gamers cheered her launch.

Final month, she was taken to a penal colony within the Russian area of Mordovia to serve her jail sentence.

Cherelle Griner, who mentioned she was “overwhelmed with feelings,” thanked Biden and his administration.

“As we speak my household is entire. BG and I’ll stay dedicated to the work of getting each American residence,” she added, utilizing her spouse’s initials.

Griner’s flight is predicted to reach in San Antonio, Texas.

In a written assertion, Griner’s household prolonged their “honest gratitude” to Biden, and mentioned they had been praying for Whelan’s launch. Additionally they thanked former New Mexico Governor Invoice Richardson, who traveled to Moscow in an effort to win the discharge of Griner and Whelan, however who didn’t act on behalf of the federal government.

Biden lamented that the US was unable to win Whelan’s launch. “We’re not giving up. We’ll by no means quit,” he mentioned.

A Biden administration official mentioned the US had proposed totally different choices for Whelan’s launch and that Russia’s “sham espionage” costs in opposition to him had been the explanation it handled his case in another way. U.S. officers spoke to him on Thursday in regards to the Griner deal.

Whelan informed CNN in an interview: “I’m tremendously dissatisfied that extra has not been executed to safe my launch, particularly because the four-year anniversary of my arrest is developing. I used to be arrested for against the law that by no means occurred.”

Bout was one of many world’s most needed males earlier than his arrest in 2008 in Thailand in a sting operation by U.S. brokers who recorded him providing to promote missiles to folks he believed had been Colombian guerrillas. Bout was variously dubbed “the service provider of loss of life” and “the sanctions buster” for his capability to get round arms embargoes.

For consultants on the Russian safety companies, Moscow’s lasting curiosity in Bout trace strongly at Russian intelligence ties.

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