WNBA star Britney Griner has been released from Russian custody, President Joe Biden said Thursday.
Greiner was released in a prisoner exchange involving Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. However, the exchange did not include another American, Paul Whelan, whom the State Department declared wrongfully detained.
“She’s safe, she’s on the plane, and she’s on her way home,” Biden said Thursday morning at the White House with Griner’s wife Sherrell. Britney will be back in the arms of her loved ones in no time after being put in the situation, and she should have been there all along.”
Biden acknowledged that Griner’s release took place while Whelan was incarcerated, and said Whelan’s family “has to have such mixed feelings today.”
“This was not a choice of which Americans to bring home,” Biden said. “Sadly, for completely unjustified reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Britney’s. never give up.”
Griner’s February arrest in Russia sparked a diplomatic drama between the US and the Kremlin that unfolded alongside Russia’s war in Ukraine. At the same time that the United States enacted devastating sanctions in response to the Ukraine war, U.S. diplomats continued to communicate with Moscow about prisoner talks seeking to secure the release of both Griner and Whelan.
Mr Biden said it took “hard and painful negotiations” to get Mr Griner home, and thanked members of the administration involved.
“This is a day we have been working on for a long time. We have not stopped calling for her release,” he said.
A prisoner exchange took place in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, according to a senior Biden administration official. A joint statement from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia said the Gulf states played a role in mediating exchanges between the United States and Russia.
Asked when he would return home following Griner’s remarks, Biden said it would be within the next “24 hours.” talking,” he said.
Cherelle Griner said she was “overwhelmed with emotions”, thanking the government for guaranteeing her release.
She and Brittney Griner “will continue to work to get homes for all Americans, including Paul, who still has family in our hearts today,” she added.
Whelan told CNN in an exclusive call from a remote Russian penal colony that he was “disappointed” that the Biden administration had not done more to secure his release. Whelan said he was happy Griner was released, but that “things were going in the right direction, the government was negotiating and something was going to happen soon.”
“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said.
Britney Griner, who played offseason for the Russian women’s basketball team for years, has been in custody since she was arrested on drug smuggling charges at an airport in the Moscow region in February. Despite her testimony of inadvertently stuffing with cannabis oil, she was sentenced to nine years in prison in early August and, after losing her appeal, was transferred to a penal colony in the Republic of Mordovia in mid-November.
Months of “difficult” negotiations with Russia culminated in Thursday’s prisoner exchange, revealing in recent weeks that room existed to secure the release of the American basketball player. .
Officials say the final deal itself was finalized in the last 48 hours, beginning the process of removing Griner from the penal colony where he was serving a lengthy prison term.
In exchange for the convicted arms dealer, Russia would only agree to release Griner and leave another American, Whelan, behind. In multiple engagements, Russian officials have made it clear that releasing Bout is the only way to release Griner from custody.
Last week, Mr. Biden finally approved a prisoner swap that would release Mr. Griner, according to people familiar with the matter.
U.S. officials said Biden had been briefed all morning while waiting for confirmation that Griner was back in U.S. hands. When that happened, Biden spoke with Griner in the Oval Office, and Sherrell Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Anthony Brinken were also on the phone, another official said.
Russia recently indicated it was willing to negotiate for Griner, not Whelan, a US official said.
The Biden administration has repeatedly offered to release Whelan as part of this deal, even after Russia made it clear that only Griner would be accepted.
After all, when it became clear that Russia would reject Whelan, the US had to accept it.
“It was a choice, get Britney or do nothing,” said a US official.
Officials say it was a “difficult decision” for Biden, but again, it was one he felt he had to make.
Griner was transferred from the penal colony to Moscow within the last 48 hours. Thursday morning she boarded a flight to the United Arab Emirates. There she arrived, on the tarmac, where she was met by US officials, including Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens. She was in a “very bright mood” and was “appreciative” with “every smile”.
A citizen of the United States, Ireland, the United Kingdom and Canada, Whelan was detained in a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities, who accused him of involvement in intelligence activities. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges, which he vehemently denies. Whelan was serving his sentence in another labor camp in Mordovia, an eight-hour drive from Moscow. He told CNN in June 2021 that he worked day in and day out at a clothing factory he called a “sweat shop.”
Whelan’s family expressed joy at the news that Griner was on his way home, but said Thursday they were “devastated” that he had been left behind.
David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said on “CNN This Morning”, “It’s a great day for the wrongfully detained families and we feel great for them.” I think it’s become clear that the US doesn’t have the kind of concessions that the Russian government wants for Paul, so I’m not really sure what the future holds.”
The Biden administration informed Whelan’s family ahead of Griner’s announcement, David Whelan said.
In an email to the media, David Whelan said his family was “devastated” by the news and became increasingly worried that Paul would not survive the remainder of his sentence.
When it became clear that Whelan would not be released with Griner, Whelan’s sister was visited in person by a senior U.S. government official to “share and discuss” the news, according to government officials.
Earlier this year, after the United States secured the release of Trevor Reed, another American detained in Russia since 2019, Paul Whelan voiced his displeasure through a statement shared by his parents.
“Why was I left behind?” Whelan said to April. “While I am happy that Trevor is home with his family, I have been in custody for 40 months on a fictional espionage charge.”
The bout has returned to Russia, Russia’s foreign ministry said Thursday. The ministry said the prisoner exchange with Griner was “successfully completed at Abu Dhabi airport” on Thursday.
In a statement on Thursday, Mr. Biden thanked the United Arab Emirates for supporting the exchange.
In a joint statement, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia said they were engaged in joint mediation efforts leading to a prisoner exchange. “The success of the mediation effort is a reflection of the solid mutual friendship that binds our two countries with the United States and the Russian Federation,” the statement said.
Asked about Saudi Arabia’s role, a US official suggested many countries were involved.
“We are confident that we will continue to rely on our partners around the world to work with us to provide ideas and impress the Russian people how important it is for us to solve these types of cases. We appreciate when those partners help us out,” the official said.
Bout, nicknamed “The Merchant of Death,” is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States for conspiring to murder Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to terrorists. is a former Soviet military officer. organization. Moscow denounced his 2012 sentence as “baseless and biased”, and Bout has pleaded not guilty.
U.S. Bout’s attorney Steve Zissou told CNN on Thursday that the prisoner swap between Griner and his client was “fair.”
“Considering that Viktor Bout has been in custody for 15 years since the U.S. government targeted him in 2006, as I have long argued, Britney has only been in custody for a few months. “His exchange with Griner is fair,” Zissou said in a statement.
Zissou told CNN that his legal team knew about the impending swap 24 hours in advance.
This story has been updated with additional developments.