The United States has secured the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner, in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, had been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 after being arrested for bringing vape cartridges with cannabis oil into the country.
U.S. President Joe Biden confirmed her release in a tweet, saying she was on a plane home. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the swap took place Wednesday at Abu Dhabi International Airport. CBS News first reported the swap.
Biden spoke to Griner over the phone from the Oval Office, alongside Griner’s wife Cherelle.
“Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should’ve been there all along,” Biden said during an address at the White House. “These last few months have been hell for Brittney.”
Bout was serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S.
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine serving a 16-year sentence in Russia, was not part of the swap. Whelan, who is a citizen of Britain, the U.S., Canada, and Ireland, was arrested in Russia in 2018 on charges of spying. Whelan’s brother celebrated Griner’s release in a statement Thursday, but said the situation remained a “catastrophe for Paul.”
Cherelle Griner said she was “overwhelmed with emotions,” and that she and Brittney would work toward “getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today.”
According to a senior administration official, the U.S. explored a wide range of alternative proposals that were generous in resolving both the Griner and Whelan cases. However, in recent weeks, it became clear that the swap would entail either bringing Griner back to the U.S., or no one at all.
Biden said Russia has treated Whelan’s case different from Griner’s, and the administration “will never give up” trying to bring him home.
Griner had pleaded guilty to the drug charges in a Russian court, saying she made an “honest mistake” and did not mean to break the law. She was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony.
The White House had said she was wrongfully detained and called her conviction “unacceptable.” U.S. officials had been exploring the possibility of a prisoner swap for months in an effort to bring Griner home, according to media reports.
Biden said Griner is expected to be back in the U.S. within the next 24 hours.