In a lovely prisoner swap, the United States agrees to release a convicted arms dealer in exchange for a basketball player.
On Thursday, Russia released US basketball star Brittney Griner in a spectacular high-level prisoner exchange for renowned arms dealer Viktor Bout, the so-called “Merchant of Death,” who had been imprisoned in the US for 12 years.
‘She’s safe, on her way home – as it happens,’ said Biden of Brittney Griner’s release from Russian prison.
Joe Biden, who had made Griner’s release a high priority after she spent nearly ten months in jail on drug charges, said in a White House statement that he found her “in good spirits” after the swap in Abu Dhabi.
“She’s safe, on a plane, on her way home after months of being wrongfully incarcerated in Russia under inhumane conditions,” he said. “Brittney will soon be reunited with her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.”
However, the president expressed disappointment that the agreement did not include Paul Whelan, a Michigan, corporate security executive who has been imprisoned since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government deny.
“Unfortunately, for illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s situation differently from Brittney’s,” Biden added. “And, while we have yet to secure Paul’s release, we are not given up. We will never, ever give up.”
Cherelle Griner, Griner’s wife, stood alongside Biden and the vice president, Kamala Harris, and said she was “overwhelmed with emotion.”
“Right now, the most important emotion I am experiencing is genuine gratitude for President Biden and his whole government.” “He stated this task isn’t simple, and it hasn’t been,” she explained.
“Today, my family is whole, but as you are all aware, many other families are not. [Brittney] isn’t here to say it, but I’ll gladly speak for her and say that BG and I will continue to fight hard to bring every American home, especially Paul, whose family is in our hearts today.”
Following the release of Trevor Reed in April, the second such swap in eight months secured the release of the most notable American incarcerated abroad.
The Russian foreign ministry revealed to state media that Griner was swapped for Bout in a secret deal in Abu Dhabi but provided no further details.
Later, footage of Griner and Bout exchanging places on the grounds of Abu Dhabi’s airport surfaced; the Financial Times stated that Russia’s FSB security force shot it.
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medallist whose detention on drug allegations drew unparalleled attention to the population of wrongfully detained people. She was detained in February, found guilty in August, and sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony in September.
Biden’s approval to free Bout highlighted the strain on his administration to bring Griner home. However, the omission of Whelan, who was similarly illegally jailed, came at a cost. In 2020, he was sentenced to 16 years in jail.
Whelan’s family applauded the Griner swap but expressed disappointment that he was not released.