Russia frees US basketball star Brittney Griner in prisoner swap

Basketball star Brittney Griner has been freed from a Russian prison and is on her way home to the United States after a prisoner swap with convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year jail term in the US.

News of the release spurred messages of relief from US officials, supporters and Griner’s loved ones who had been campaigning for her return for months.

The exchange took place at Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates on Thursday, Russian news agencies reported.

US President Joe Biden said Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was “on her way home”.

“She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden wrote in a Tweet that featured a picture of him and Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner.

The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the swap, saying in a statement that Bout had been flown home. Russian media showed Griner walking off a Russian plane in Abu Dhabi where she was greeted by a US official. Two Russians greeted Bout, once nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”, with a hug.

Later, Russian TV showed Bout walking off the plane on a snow-covered tarmac in Moscow, his mother and wife hugging him and giving him flowers.

‘Incomparable athlete’

Griner, 32, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and star of the Phoenix Mercury at the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), was arrested on February 17 at a Moscow airport when cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia, were found in her luggage.

Her arrest came days before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 as ties between Washington and Moscow came under further strain. The Biden administration, early on, said she had been “wrongfully detained”.

On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the prisoner exchange deal should not be seen as a step towards improving bilateral relations between Russian and the US.

Peskov said ties between the two countries remained in a “sorry state”, according to the TASS news agency.

Throughout her time in Russian custody, Griner’s relatives, teammates and supporters called on the US government to put its full weight behind the case to secure her release.

She was sentenced on August 4 to nine years in prison on charges of possessing and smuggling drugs. She had pleaded guilty but said she had made an “honest mistake” and had not meant to break the law.

Her lawyers described the sentence as excessive, stressing that it does not “correspond to the gravity of the crime”.

Last month, Griner was taken to a penal colony in the Russian region of Mordovia to serve her sentence.

In a brief address at the White House on Thursday, Biden said the “past few months have been hell for Brittney” but that she was in good spirits. He praised the basketball star as an “incomparable athlete”.

“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstaking and intense negotiations,” the US president said.

Dozens of US politicians, athletes and commentators expressed joy and gratitude for Griner’s release on Thursday.

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