WNBA star Brittney Griner has been released from Russian detention, U.S. President Joe Biden said Thursday.
A source familiar with the matter told CNN that the deal involved convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The swap does not include Paul Whelan, another American the State Department announced was wrongfully detained.
“She’s safe, she’s on the plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said Thursday morning at the White House with Griner’s wife, Cheryl. “After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held in intolerable circumstances, Britney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, where she should always have been.”
Biden acknowledged Griner’s release while Whelan remained in custody and said Whelan’s family “must have had such mixed emotions today.”
“It’s not an option to send any American home,” Biden said. “Sadly, Russia is handling Paul’s case differently than Britney’s for reasons that are completely irrational. While we have not succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up. ”
Biden said the effort to bring Greiner home had been “hard and intense negotiations” and he thanked members of the administration who were involved.
“This is a day we’ve worked for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release,” he said.
Asked when Greener would return home after his remarks, Biden said it would be within the next “24 hours.” As for what he would say to Whelan’s family, he said, “We’re talking to them.”
Cherelle Griner thanked the government for helping secure her wife’s release and said she was “overwhelmed”.
Both she and Brittney Griner “will remain committed to keeping every American family, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today,” she added.
Brittney Griner, who played for the Russian women’s basketball team in the offseason for years, has been in custody since February, when she was arrested at an airport in the Moscow region on drug-smuggling charges. Despite her testimony that she inadvertently packed cannabis oil found in her luggage, she was sentenced to nine years in prison in early August and transferred to a criminal exile in the Republic of Mordovia in mid-November after losing her appeal. land.
An official familiar with the matter said that Biden had finally approved the prisoner exchange that would free Griner over the past week, adding that Biden provided an update on the exchange on Thursday morning.
A U.S. official said he spent the morning being briefed as he awaited confirmation that Griner was back in U.S. hands. Once that happened, Biden spoke with Greener in the Oval Office, as did Cheryl Greener, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, another official said. on the phone.
Biden was “personally involved and in touch with his team” as the deal was struck in the final days and after he personally approved its execution. The briefings — and the questions Biden posed to his team — were ongoing, a senior administration official said.
It was the right deal, the official added, but it was worth noting that it was “the only deal we can do at this point.”
A U.S. official said the Russians had recently indicated they were only willing to negotiate for Greiner, not Whelan. That’s because Russia has been handling their cases differently based on what each person is accused of.
As part of the deal, the Biden administration repeatedly offered Whelan’s release, even after Russia made it clear that only Greiner was acceptable.
In the end, when it became clear that Russia was going to reject Whelan, the United States had to accept it.
“You get Britney or you get nothing, that’s a choice,” the U.S. official said.
It was a “difficult decision” for Biden, but again he felt he had to make it, the official said.
Whelan, a citizen of the United States, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Canada, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities, who accused him of being involved in an intelligence operation. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage, which he vehemently denies. Whelan, who has been serving his sentence in another labor camp in Mordovia, an eight-hour drive from Moscow, told CNN in June 2021 that he worked in a facility he described as a “sweatshop.” The garment factory worked for a few days.
Whelan’s family expressed joy at the news that Griner was on his way home, but said Thursday they were “shocked” that he was left behind.
“It’s a great day for the wrongly detained family and we’re so happy for them,” Paul’s brother David Whelan said on “CNN This Morning.” “But we do worry about Paul’s future. I think it’s clear that the United States doesn’t have any of the concessions that the Russian government wants Paul to make. So I’m really not sure what the future holds.”
David Whelan said the Biden administration told Whelan’s family before Griner’s announcement.
In an email to the media, David Whelan said his family was “devastated” by the news and had grown concerned that Paul would not survive the remainder of his sentence.
“I can’t even comprehend how Paul felt after studying. Paul worked hard to get through almost four years of injustice. His hopes were boosted when he learned that the US government was taking concrete steps to secure his release. Where will you live when you come to the United States,” David Whelan said in a statement.
“Now what? How do you go on living day in and day out knowing your government has twice failed to get you out of a foreign prison? I can’t imagine him having a problem with the government negotiating his freedom at this point Any hope. Clearly, the U.S. government has no concessions that the Russian government would make for Paul Whelan. So until that changes, Paul will remain a prisoner,” Whelan said.
Bout has returned to Russia to serve as the Russian Foreign Ministry. State media added that the prisoner exchange with Griner was “successfully completed at Abu Dhabi airport” on Thursday.
Nicknamed “Death Merchant,” Bout is a former Soviet military officer currently serving a 25-year sentence in the United States for conspiring to kill Americans, acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles and providing material support to terrorist organizations. Moscow slammed his sentence in 2012 as “baseless and biased,” and Bout insisted he was innocent.
This story is happening and will be updated.