WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was held in Russian prisons for months, was released on Thursday in a one-for-one prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout after the Biden White House was able to reach a deal with the Kremlin for the swap. As of Thursday morning, she is now traveling to the United States, the White House publicly announced.
President Joe Biden promised that Griner will be back in 24 hours. Griner was serving a jail term in Russia after she was convicted on drug charges. According to reports, the deal was brokered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and United Arab Emirates' President, according to Arab News.
Griner who is currently detained in Russia on marijuana-related narcotics charges is being sent back to the United States in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout. "She's safe, she's on a plane, she's on her way home," President Biden made the announcement from the White House, where he was accompanied by Cherelle Griner.
"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," Biden added.
The two spoke with the Phoenix Mercury center over the phone, according to senior White House officials.
According to reports, Griner was shifted to Moscow "couple days ago" from the penal colony where she was imprisoned, before being taken to the UAE for the prisoner swap. According to officials, the UAE president Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed spoke to her from the tarmac in the UAE, and she is in the air and on her way back to the states.
According to CBS News, senior administration officials told reporters in a call on Thursday morning that in recent weeks, it had become obvious that either Griner could be returned to the United States or no one at all. The only way Griner could be released, according to the Russians, was in exchange for Bout.
Bout was granted mercy by the president in exchange for his release, although his culpability in his conviction still stands.
The negotiations were reportedly mediated by Zayed and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Playing the Perfect Mediator
The exchange comes amid rising hostilities between Washington and Moscow over Russia's invasion of Ukraine and follows months of talks between the White House and the Kremlin.
Biden approved the deal, which was carried out in the United Arab Emirates, and consented to the release of the Russian criminal known as "the Merchant of Death." The foreign ministries of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates claimed in a joint statement that the arrangement had been mediated by the leaders of the two Middle Eastern countries.
"The success of the mediation efforts was a reflection of the mutual and solid friendship between their two countries and the United States of America and the Russian Federation," the statement read.
Bout was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to kill Americans and other crimes after arming the Colombian FARC narco-terrorist organization. He received a 25-year prison term.
A US source emphasized that "nothing can change the fact that Bout spent over 12 years behind bars" when questioned about why the White House would trade an international arms dealer and drug lord for a basketball star.
"There's nothing to remove the stigma of a guilty conviction in the US, where I would emphasize, he received due process of law, access to counsel and a whole host of other rights and protections that Brittney was appallingly denied in the sham proceedings she faced in Russia," the official said.
According to Russian official media, the transfer took place at the airport in Abu Dhabi, when Griner and Bout had to cross paths in order to get to their respective parties on the tarmac.
Griner was reportedly "all smiles" as she approached the American group on the tarmac, according to the official. Griner, 32, was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony where she was expected to work in substandard conditions while stitching for 12 or more hours each day.
According to NBC News, which cited a senior administration official, the Houston native would first be flown to a medical center in San Antonio, Texas, to undergo treatment. There, Griner will be met by her wife.