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U.S. WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on 27 July 2022. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and WNBA champion, was detained at Moscow airport in February on charges of carrying in her luggage vape cartridges with cannabis oil, which could carry a 10-year prison sentence. (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

Prisoner Exchange Frees WNBA Star Brittney Griner

In a prisoner exchange with Russia, Brittney Griner was released after a nine-month stint in a Russian detention facility.

U.S. President Joe Biden announced Griner’s release on Thursday morning.

Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic gold medal winner, was detained in February at an airport near Moscow. When less than one gram of cannabis oil was found in her luggage, she was arrested and charged with drug smuggling.

Griner, who was playing for a Russian women’s basketball team during the WNBA offseason, maintained that she had not intended to pack the oil and provided proof that the oil was legally prescribed for pain management. She was sentenced in August to a nine-year prison term, and she lost an appeal in late October.

She is expected to arrive back in the United States on Friday, according to a statement Biden made from the White House. 

At the beginning of December, the Biden administration reported that Griner was transferred to a maximum-security penal colony for women in early or mid-November.

“Biden spoke with Griner from the Oval Office just before making the announcement,” NPR reported. “He said she was in good spirits, but was experiencing ‘trauma’ and would need time to heal.”

Griner was released in exchange for a Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout.

Bout, who carries the nickname of the “Merchant of Death,” was serving a 25-year prison sentence in Illinois, which Biden commuted. Bout, 55, was convicted of “conspiring to kill U.S. nationals and selling weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC),” according to The Washington Post.

“The Kremlin long pushed for Bout’s release, calling his conviction ‘unlawful,’” the Post reported. Bout was arrested in a 2008 joint sting operation in Thailand with coordination with the United States. Despite his insistence that he is an air transportation businessman, Bout has also linked to the Taliban, Liberia’s Charles Taylor, and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, generating a notable “history of weapons dealing in some of the most dangerous and impoverished places in the world,” the Post said.  

The prisoner exchange did not include Paul Whelan, a retired U.S. Marine whom the U.S. Department of State also declared wrongfully detained. Whelan was arrested and charged in December 2018 on accusations of espionage. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison, which he is serving out at a labor camp in Mordovia.

“The leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia conducted the mediation efforts to secure Ms. Griner and Mr. Bout’s exchange,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

Griner’s arrest occurred as Russia’s war in Ukraine was beginning, and although the United States “enacted crippling sanctions in response to the Ukraine war, U.S. diplomats kept open lines of communication with Moscow over prisoner negotiations to try to secure the release of both Griner and Whelan,” CNN reported.

An official familiar with the prisoner exchange said that this was the only deal that the United States could make right now, according to CNN.

In a conference call with reporters, an official said that the choice was not about “which American to bring home…It was a choice between bringing home one particular American—Brittney Griner—or bringing home none,” NPR reported.

Prisoner exchange agreements between the United States and Russia are not unheard of, although they are rare. “In 1986, the detained American journalist Nicholas Daniloff was swapped for the Soviet physicist Gennadi Zakharov,” according to the Post.

More recently, “U.S. marine Trevor Reed spent three years in jail for assault before being traded last April for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted of smuggling cocaine,” according to BBC News.  

Organizations can take steps to try to bolster the safety of their staff and people while they travel. For tips on travel security, especially for members of marginalized communities, take a look at "Out and at Risk: Protecting LGBTQ+ and Other Minority Travelers."