WNBA star Brittney Griner back in U.S. following high-profile Russia jailing, prisoner swap

Brittney Griner disembarked from a plane in Texas early Friday, nearly 10 months after the basketball star was detained in Russia and became the most high-profile American jailed abroad.

Bill Richardson, who helped in negotiations, tells CBC News such talks involve 'unpleasant' trade-offs

Brittney Griner's journey from Russia back to the U.S.

4 months ago
Duration 1:30
Basketball star Brittney Griner is back in the U.S. after being released from Russia as part of a prisoner exchange. During her return, she crossed paths with arms dealer Viktor Bout, whose release was authorized by U.S. President Joe Biden as part of the deal.

Brittney Griner disembarked from a plane in Texas early Friday, nearly 10 months after the basketball star was detained in Russia and became the most high-profile American jailed abroad.

Griner was exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout. The plane carrying her touched down at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

The deal achieved a top goal for U.S. President Joe Biden — but failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.

Biden's authorization to release Bout, the Russian felon once nicknamed "the Merchant of Death," underscored the heightened urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

Griner, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at an airport there after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be "wrongfully detained" — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.

Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medallist and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, injected racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga.

U.S. officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counselling.

Experienced negotiator Bill Richardson talks about challenges in exchanging prisoners:

Freeing detainees is 'a priority' for U.S., says Brittney Griner negotiator

4 months ago
Duration 8:55
Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who runs an organization aimed at freeing Americans wrongfully detained abroad, breaks down the negotiation process to secure Brittney Griner's freedom.

Arms dealer in custody for nearly 15 years

Following Griner's arrest at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February, she pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia's judicial system does not automatically end a case.

She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent and she accidentally packed them. Her defence team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.

In this image taken from video, Russian citizen Viktor Bout has his blood pressure taken while at the airport in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. He has since arrived in Russia. (RU-24 Russian Television/The Associated Press)

In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world's most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the U.S. in 2010.

Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.

WATCH | U.S. Secretary of State explains rationale for decision:

'The choice was one or none,' says Blinken on Griner-Bout swap

4 months ago
Duration 0:57
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre both stated that there was never an option to include Paul Whelan with Brittney Griner when discussing the prisoner swap with Russia.

Bout was back home in Russia on Friday, his wife confirmed to Reuters.

Bill Richardson, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was involved in the negotiations. He told CBC News on Friday that he was elated to see Griner touch down in San Antonio, but admitted it's "unpleasant … to get a guy like Bout out."

Because Bout was serving a federal sentence, the deal required a pardon from Biden to go forward, he said.

Putin not closing door on future exchanges

U.S. officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the person-for-person exchange was the only deal on the table, leaving Michigan resident Paul Whelan still imprisoned in Russia. The Ottawa-born Whelan, who holds American, Canadian and Irish citizenship, was convicted on espionage charges he denies and has been detained for about four years.

David Whelan, the prisoner's brother, told CBC News on Friday that the events of the past 48 hours have given rise to a number of emotions, including happiness for Griner and her family, as well as anger at the Kremlin.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. marine who was born in Canada, is shown denouncing his trial while in Moscow at a hearing on June 15, 2020. (AFP/Getty Images)

Whelan said he's disappointed for his brother and believes his family, including parents both over 80 years old, will have to continue being patient. He was quick to point out there are other Americans that U.S. officials are trying to get repatriated from around the world who have languished in prisons no longer than his brother.

"Canada saw this with the two Michaels, and it's going to happen around the world, and I'm afraid that Paul is going to have to sit a little while longer before his case gets sorted out," said Whelan, referring to Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, Canadians imprisoned in China not long after Chinese executive Meng Wanzhou was confined to British Columbia amid a U.S. extradition order.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday he wouldn't rule out further prisoner swaps with the United States, and that contacts between the two countries' intelligence services would continue.

"Yes, anything is possible," he responded to a question at a news conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. "Contacts continue. In fact, they have never stopped.… A compromise was found. We do not reject continuing this work in the future."

Richardson said that for four years he has "been trying to find formulas to get Paul back, but it always seems at the very end there's a roadblock [in negotiations]."

Richardson, who in his career has been involved in helping secure the release of several Americans imprisoned or held hostage abroad, said Whelan's release remains a high priority.

With files from CBC News and Reuters


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