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WNBA star Brittney Griner freed from a Russian prison lands in San Antonio

WNBA player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, holds a picture of her team as she stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Aug. 4.
Evgenia Novozhenina
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Pool/AFP via Getty Images
WNBA player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, holds a picture of her team as she stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Aug. 4.

President Joe Biden said on Thursday that WNBA star Brittney Griner has been freed from a Russian prison.

Standing along side Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, at the White House, Biden said it was a day that "we worked 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.

Griner landed at Joint Base San Antonio Kelly Field early Friday morning. She was then taken to Brooke Army Medical Center for a medical evaluation and to be reunited with her wife Cherelle.

In a statement, a State Department spokesperson explained that the "U.S. government is focused on ensuring that Brittney Griner and her family’s well-being are prioritized and that all available assistance be offered in an appropriate manner. Due to privacy reasons and out of respect to the family, we do not have anything additional to provide."

Security experts cautioned that the swap potentially sends a message that arresting and jailing Americans on trumped up charges could motivate foreign governments to continue the practice. But Texans who knew Griner as an athlete and student shared their joy over the news.


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, nicknamed “The Merchant of Death” by his accusers.

Bout, who maintains his innocence, is a former Soviet military officer. He was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization.

"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."

The exchange did not include retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan who remains imprisoned in Russia, on espionage charges that the U.S. says are false.

Bout is a Russian who was the world's most notorious arms dealer in the 1990s and early 2000s. He was serving a 25-year prison sentence in Illinois before being freed as part of a U.S.-Russia swap.

"While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up," Biden said Thursday. "We will never give up."

Cherelle Griner said she was overwhelmed by emotions, expressing gratitude to Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and other members of the administration involved in securing her wife's release. She thanked the WNBA, Griner's agent, and others.

"BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul" she said.

Griner's detention had been a top priority for Biden and his administration. In July, she sent him a handwritten letter, saying "I'm terrified I might be here forever."

The president was under increasing pressure to secure Griner's release. He said last month that he hoped Russian President Vladimir Putin would be more willing to discuss a prisoner exchange after the U.S. midterm elections were over.
Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, is a seven-time WNBA All-Star, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first openly gay athlete signed to an endorsement contract by Nike. She also played for Russia's UMMC Ekaterinburg basketball team during the WNBA's offseason.

She was sentenced last August by a Russian court to nine years in prison for carrying less than a gram of hash oil into Russia when she arrived in February of this year for play in the Russian women's professional basketball league. Last month, she was transferred to a prison colony in Mordovia — 300 miles southeast of Moscow — to begin serving out her sentence.

In court, Griner admitted to mistakenly packing two vape cartridges in her rush to pack her luggage — but provided documents that showed the hash oil was legally prescribed by her U.S. doctor for pain management.

Griner leaves a courtroom after the court's verdict in Khimki outside Moscow, on Aug. 4.
Kirill Kudryatsev / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Griner leaves a courtroom after the court's verdict in Khimki outside Moscow, on Aug. 4.

Her arrest in February was just days before Russia invaded Ukraine as tensions between the United States and Moscow were rising.

The U.S. government had labeled Griner "wrongfully detained" and sought a prisoner swap with Russia involving Griner and Whelan. The White House said it made a "substantial offer" over the summer — widely reported to involve a suggested trade of Bout — in exchange for Griner and Whelan.

Biden said his team continues to work for the release of Paul Whelan.

"Sadly for totally illegitimate reasons Russia is treating Paul's case different than Brittney's," Biden said.

TPR's Carson Frame contributed to this report.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
Charles Maynes