Washington — Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who was held for months in Russian prisons on drug charges, was released Thursday in a one-for-one prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout, bringing an end to an ordeal that sparked intensive high-level negotiations between the U.S. and the Kremlin to secure her freedom.
"She's safe. She's on a plane. She's on her way home," President Biden said at the White House, announcing the exchange. "After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, 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've worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release."
CBS News was first to report the swap, which took place in the United Arab Emirates, citing a U.S. official. The exchange agreement negotiated with Moscow in recent weeks was given final approval by Mr. Biden within just the last week, according to sources familiar with the deal.
Five former U.S. officials told CBS News the agreement had been reached as of last Thursday.
The president said he spoke to Griner by phone from the Oval Office, where he was joined by Griner's wife Cherelle, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Per standard procedure for freed U.S. prisoners, Griner was expected to quickly undergo a medical evaluation.
Mr. Biden said that he was "glad to be able to say Brittney is in good spirits," and that she was looking forward to getting home. The president dismissed the "show trial in Russia" that landed her in prison and said "she didn't ask 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 cutting short Bout's 25-year federal prison sentence.
Notably, the Griner-for-Bout exchange leaves retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan imprisoned in Russia. Whelan has been in Russian custody for nearly four years. He was convicted on espionage charges that the U.S. has called false.
"We've not forgotten about Paul Whelan," Mr. Biden said Thursday, adding "we will never give up" on securing his release. U.S. officials told reporters that it became clear in talks with the Russians 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 was "a choice between bringing home one particular American — Brittney Griner — or bringing home none."
Whelan told CNN in a phone call Thursday that he was happy Griner was free, but said he was "greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up."
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 she didn't mean to bring 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 various permutations of potential swap arrangements — including a previously unreported offer by the U.S. this past summer to send two prisoners back to Russia for the two Americans — sources say the one-for-one exchange came together over 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 U.S. and Whelan denied. This month marks the fourth anniversary of Whelan's time in Russian custody.
Bout, who was most recently held at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois, was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency in Thailand following a sting operation in 2008. He was convicted of conspiring to kill Americans and began his 25-year sentence a decade ago.
Griner's arrest coincided with the February start to Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and all U.S. dealings with the Kremlin have been complicated by that conflict. The U.S. has said both Griner and Whelan were "wrongfully detained," and officials have suspected that Russia has been using the American prisoners as leverage.
Griner's return for Bout marks the Biden administration's second prisoner swap with Russia. In April, the U.S. traded Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian smuggler convicted of conspiring to import cocaine, for Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who had been imprisoned in Russia for nearly three years.
CBS News learned last Thursday that the Griner-for-Bout swap was in the offing but agreed to a White House request to hold the reporting because officials expressed grave concern about the fragility of the then-emerging deal.
The Biden administration officials warned that making details of the swap public beforehand would almost certainly lead Russia to pull out of the agreement and potentially endanger Griner's well-being.
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