Today President Biden announced that WBNA basketball star Brittney Griner would be returning home after serving 10 months in a Russian jail. In the unprecedented announcement, he said that she has been exchanged for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who has been held in an American prison for 12 years.
Griner was arrested and convicted of carrying hashish oil in her luggage while she was visiting Moscow to play for a basketball team there. After months of diplomatic talks between the U.S. and Russian officials, she sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony in November.
Russia’s foreign ministry confirmed her return home and said the swap between her and the notorious Russian arms dealer had taken place at Abu Dhabi airport.
“The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland,” the ministry said in a statement.
At the Oval Office Thursday, Griner’s wife Cherelle applauded the Administration’s efforts to secure her release.
“I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions,” adding that the ordeal was one of the darkest moments of her life.
Family and loved ones of WNBA star Brittney Griner had grown worried about the whereabouts of the basketball player after it was announced that she has been transferred to a penal colony over seven hours away from Russia’s capital. Her exact location was unknown at the time, although it had been revealed that the penal colony was in Yavas, in Russia’s western region.
“First, on behalf of Brittney, we would like to thank everyone who has expressed care for her,” her attorneys Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in a statement at the time of her transfer to the prison. “We can confirm that Brittney began serving her sentence at IK-2 in Mordovia.”
The statement continued: “We visited her early this week. Brittney is doing as well as could be expected and trying to stay strong as she adapts to a new environment. Considering that this is a very challenging period for her, there will be no further comments from us.”
Last month, the U.S. State Department confirmed to the media that they were in touch with her legal team. Her lawyers confirmed during talks that she had been transferred to a penal colony.
“However, the Russian Federation has still failed to provide any official notification for such a move of a U.S. citizen, which we strongly protest. The Embassy has continued to press for more information about her transfer and current location,” a spokesperson said at the time.
She was transferred to the maximum-security prison one day after American diplomats visited her. Neither U.S. officials nor her lawyers were aware of her transfer until earlier this year. Officials further indicate that her family may not know where exactly she was when she was transferred.
Russian penal colonies are known for their severe and brutal conditions – conditions that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said were “another injustice layered on her ongoing unjust and wrongful detention.”
“As we work to secure Brittney Griner’s release, we expect Russian authorities to provide our Embassy officials with regular access to all U.S. citizens detained in Russia, including Brittney, as is their obligation,” Blinken said in November. “Ensuring the health and welfare of U.S. citizen detainees in Russia is a priority, and we will continue to press for fair and transparent treatment for them all.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre echoed Blinken’s sentiments, stating that the Administration was working tirelessly to bring Griner back home.
“Every minute that Brittney Griner must endure wrongful detention in Russia is a minute too long,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement at the time Russia announced her conviction. “As the Administration continues to work tirelessly to secure her release, the President has directed the Administration to prevail on her Russian captors to improve her treatment and the conditions she may be forced to endure in a penal colony.”
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, also released a statement, advocating that the public should remain to pour support for the detained basketball player. “Our primary concern continues to be BG’s health and well-being. As we work through this very difficult phase of not knowing exactly where BG is or how she is doing, we ask for the public’s support in continuing to write letters and express their love and care for her.”
Colas said that she was working closely with the U.S. government and the Richardson Center, an organization that works to bring Americans detained abroad back home. Bill Richardson, the organization’s lead and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who worked with Colas was “using all available resources to determine her whereabouts, ensure her safety and bring her home. We are thankful for everyone’s support, and hope that as we near nine months of detention, that BG and all wrongfully detained Americans will be shown mercy and returned home to their families for the holidays.”
“In the subsequent weeks, despite a lack of good faith negotiation by the Russians, the U.S. Government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with the Russians through all available channels,” read a statement from U.S. officials in November. “The U.S. Government is unwavering in its commitment to its work on behalf of Brittney and other Americans detained in Russia — including fellow wrongful detainee Paul Whelan.”
“It’s clear the US government needs to be more assertive,” President Biden said in a statement Thursday. “If bad actors like Russia are going to grab innocent Americans, the US needs a swifter, more direct response.”
President Biden further urged Americans to take the proper measures before travelling out of the country, and cautioned about the risk of being wrongfully detained by a foreign government.