Brittney Griner freed from Russian penal colony in high-level prisoner swap

U.S. women's basketball players A'Ja Wilson and Brittney Griner bite their gold medals.
U.S. women’s basketball player Brittney Griner (right) celebrates her Olympic gold medal with teammate A’Ja Wilson (left) at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Russia freed WNBA star Britney Griner in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the U.S. releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Brittney Griner is headed home after 294 days in Russian detention.

Russia freed the WNBA star Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the U.S. releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, U.S. officials said. The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden, but carried a heavy price — and left behind another American who has been jailed for nearly four years in Russia.

“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said from the White House, where he was accompanied by Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and administration officials.

The news prompted swift and joyous response across the sports landscape, with many WNBA stars and LGBTQ+ athletes helping lead the public advocacy for extracting Griner from a country known for its hostility toward the LGBTQ+ community.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, and that Bout had been flown home.

Bout, one of the world’s biggest arms traffickers, was snared in a U.S. government sting operation in 2008 in Bangkok. He thought he was meeting with representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a leftist Colombian guerrilla organization, to sell them rocket launchers and helicopters. But undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents posing as guerrillas arrested Bout.

He was eventually extradited to the U.S., and in 2011 was sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring to kill Americans, among other crimes. He was confined to a medium-security federal prison in Illinois.

U.S. prosecutors said Bout’s clients included dictators such as the late Moammar Kadafi of Libya and Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president convicted at The Hague in 2012 of war crimes including murder and rape. Other clients included Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, which battled the Taliban in the late 1990s. Later, Bout did business with the Taliban.

The fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise, given that U.S. officials had for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have said are baseless.

“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “We will keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release.”

Whelan’s brother David said in a statement he was “so glad” for Griner’s release but also disappointed for his family. He credited the White House with giving the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not fault officials for making the deal.

“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.

The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. The detention of one of the greatest players in U.S. basketball history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.

Russian authorities say they found vape cartridges with 0.7 gram of cannabis oil in her luggage when Griner, 31, arrived Feb. 17 to play basketball for UMMC Ekaterinburg, an elite Russian club team. She had a layover in Moscow on her way from the U.S. to Ekaterinburg and was detained.

The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose months-long imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.

She pleaded guilty July 7 and on Aug. 4 was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in prison and fined $1 million rubles (about $16,700) by judge Anna Sotnikova of the Khimki City Court outside Moscow. Griner testified that she had unintentionally carried the banned substance into Russia because she had packed in a hurry. She denied purposely committing a crime.

Ahead of her conviction, Griner made an emotional plea to Sotnikova, apologizing for breaking the law but saying she made “an honest mistake” in bringing the vape cartridges into Russia. “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life,” Griner said.

She went on to say, “I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city of [Yekaterinburg] for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them. I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA and my amazing spouse back at home.”

Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, issued a statement the day she pleaded guilty that read in part: "[Griner] decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people.”

A week later Blagovolina submitted to the court an Arizona doctor’s letter recommending Griner use cannabis to treat pain. A hearing was held to allow character witnesses testify on her behalf, including Maxim Rybakov, the head of the Ekaterinburg team, and teammate Evgenia Belyakova.

“We miss her very much, we miss her energy,” Belyakova added outside the courthouse.

Sotnikova, however, handed down nearly the 10 years prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko requested. Griner appealed the verdict but the Moscow Regional Court ruled Oct. 25 to uphold the sentence. The court did reduce the time she would serve in prison after taking her time in pretrial detention into account. One day in pretrial detention is counted as 1.5 days in prison, so Griner would have served about eight years in prison.

U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan denounced the appeal hearing as “another sham judicial proceeding,” saying in a statement that Biden “is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home.”

Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, reacted to the appeal denial with a statement that read in part:

“Brittney Griner’s nine-plus year sentence is regarded as harsh and extreme by Russian legal standards. Today’s disappointing, yet unsurprising, appeal outcome further validates the fact that she is being held hostage and is being used as a political pawn. Brittney Griner is being held by Russia simply because she is an American.

“We call on all people, fellow Americans, along with the global sports community, to unite in their support for BG and President Biden’s efforts to do what is necessary to rescue her. We must support the use of all available tools to secure the safe return of BG and all Americans — with urgency.”

The State Department in May designated Griner as wrongfully detained, moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced July 27 that the U.S. government had launched top-priority negotiations with Russia weeks earlier to release Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine arrested in Moscow and convicted on questionable espionage charges in 2018.

“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” Blinken said. “Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal.”

Blinken had a telephone call with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on July 29, marking the highest-level communication between the two countries’ governments since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Russian officials had said all legal avenues must be exhausted before an exchange could be discussed. However, Aleksandr Darchiev, a high-ranking Russian diplomat, said in early August that negotiations were already underway, including discussion of Russians held by the United States whose release Moscow seeks in exchange for Griner’s freedom.

“The discussion of the quite sensitive topic of prisoner exchange of Russian and American citizens has been ongoing along the channels set out by the two presidents,” Darchiev, director of the North American department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, told TASS, a state news agency.

The saga dragged into the fall with Blagovolina and Boykov spending a few hours with Griner on her 32nd birthday Oct. 18, one week before her appeal hearing. The attorneys relayed birthday wishes to her and Griner sent a message through them: “Thank you everyone for fighting so hard to get me home. All the support and love are definitely helping me.”

In addition, Colas launched a new phase of the #WeareBG campaign of athletes, activists, and organizations with a video and a new system for the public to send messages to Griner.

“Over the past eight months, we have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, care and concern for Brittney and her family,” Colas said. “The compassion and unity we see in favor of doing what is necessary to rescue Americans reveals the best in us, as Americans and as global citizens. Each of us, regardless of our differences, can imagine the pain of being separated from our family for over 200 days. Our commitment to bring BG home is urgent and unwavering, and it is fueled by a hope that every family can have their loved ones close.”

Griner, a 6-foot-9 center, is considered the best woman’s basketball player in the U.S. She was an All-American at Baylor, anchored two U.S. Olympic gold medal teams and is a perennial All-Star with the Phoenix Mercury. Experts have speculated that she was singled out for prosecution by the Russian government because of her celebrity.

While awaiting trial, Griner wrote a letter to Biden that read in part, “As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever.”

Griner asked Biden not to “forget about me and the other American Detainees.”

Biden wrote back to Griner in a letter delivered the day her trial began. The previous day Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Griner’s wife. Biden said his administration was pursuing “every avenue to bring Brittney home.”

“Ms. Griner was able to read that letter,” said Elizabeth Rood, an official at the American Embassy in Moscow, the first day of Griner’s trial. “I would like again to emphasize the commitment of the U.S. government at the very highest level to bring home safely Ms. Griner and all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained.”

Griner had only sporadic communication with Cherelle and others in the U.S. Emails to her were printed and delivered to Griner by her lawyers after being vetted by Russian officials. The lawyers retrieved responses from Griner and sent them to the U.S.

She was supposed to have a phone call with Cherelle on their third wedding anniversary June 18 but it failed because no one was at the American Embassy to connect the call between them. Apparently, no one was working at the embassy because it was a Saturday.

Griner’s predicament wasn’t widely publicized until U.S. athletes began drawing attention to it. Some have asked whether the fact that she is gay and Black lessened public sympathy.

“If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?” Vanessa Nygaard, Griner’s coach with the Mercury, said July 5. “It’s a statement about the value of women. It’s a statement about the value of a Black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person.”

The Boston Celtics wore “We are BG” T-shirts during the NBA finals. James, Steph Curry and others demanded her release. U.S. woman’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe wore a jacket with Griner’s initials stitched into her lapel as she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The WNBA announced that Griner’s initials and jersey number 42 would be displayed on the sidelines at all games. Mercury players wore shirts bearing the message, “We are BG.”

Russian officials downplayed the impact outrage in the U.S. would have in a determining Griner’s punishment and possible release.

“Hype and publicity, for all the love for this genre among modern politicians, only gets in the way in this particular instance,” Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei A. Ryabkov said. “This does not just distract from the case, but creates interference in the truest sense of the word. That’s why silence is needed here.”

In April, the U.S. secured the release of Marine veteran Trevor Reed as part of a prisoner swap that also resulted in a convicted Russian drug trafficker being freed from a U.S. prison.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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