According to President Joe Biden, WNBA star Brittney Griner has been released from Russian custody.
Griner was freed in a prisoner swap involving Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. However, Paul Whelan, another American the State Department has deemed wrongfully detained, was not included in the exchange.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Biden said at the White House Thursday morning alongside Griner’s wife, Cherelle. “After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.”
While Whelan was still behind bars, Griner was released, and Biden noted this, noting that Whelan’s family “have to have such mixed emotions today.”
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said. “Sadly, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s for illegitimate reasons. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
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In February, Griner’s detention in Russia set up a diplomatic drama involving the US and the Kremlin that played out in tandem with Russia’s conflict in Ukraine. US diplomats maintained open lines of communication with Moscow regarding prisoner discussions to obtain the release of both Griner and Whelan. At the same time, the US adopted crippling sanctions in reaction to the Ukraine crisis.
Biden acknowledged the officials of his administration who were part of the “painstaking and rigorous negotiations” that went into trying to bring Griner home.
“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release,” he said.
Senior Biden administration officials claim that the prisoner swap occurred in Abu Dhabi on Thursday. According to a joint statement from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Gulf nations were mediating the conversation between the US and Russia.
Asked when Griner would be home following his remarks, Biden indicated it would be in the following “24 hours.” As for what he would say to Whelan’s family, he said, “We’re speaking to them.”
Cherelle Griner thanked the administration for helping secure her wife’s release and said she was “overwhelmed with emotions.”
She and Brittney Griner “will remain committed to getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today,” she added.
Whelan expressed his disappointment with the Biden administration for not doing more to obtain his release during an exclusive phone chat with CNN from the prison colony where he is being kept in a remote area of Russia.
WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian penal colony and is on her way home following a one-for-one prisoner swap with notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout https://t.co/V6iTk3dGJT pic.twitter.com/TW6cz7OTjD
— TIME (@TIME) December 8, 2022
Whelan said he was happy that Griner was released but that he “was led to believe that things were moving in the right direction and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon.”
“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said.
Brittney Griner, who had for years participated in off-season play for a Russian women’s basketball team, had been held since February after being charged with drug smuggling at a Moscow-area airport.
She testified that the cannabis oil discovered in her luggage was packed accidentally; nonetheless, she was sentenced to nine years in early August and transferred to a penal colony in the Mordovia republic in mid-November after losing her appeal. Why Brittney Griner is in Prison? Is She a Prison Basketball Coach?
The only deal we could make right now
According to senior US government officials, months and months of “tough” negotiations with the Russians resulted in Thursday’s prisoner swap. It was only in recent weeks that it became apparent that there was a chance to secure the release of the American basketball player.
The process of removing Griner from the correctional colony where she served a lengthy sentence began when the final agreement came together, according to the officials, during the previous 48 hours.
Even if it was a huge step forward, the opening was nevertheless “painful,” according to the officials. In exchange for the release of one accused arms dealer, Russia would only release Griner and keep another American, Whelan. Russian officials have made it plain in several interactions over the past few weeks and months that removing Bout is the only way they will release Griner from her captivity.
An official with knowledge of the situation stated that Biden gave final permission for the prisoner trade that released Griner over the past week.
As he awaited word that Griner was back in US hands, Biden was briefed all morning, according to a US official. After that, according to a second person, Biden called Griner from the Oval Office and spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Cherelle Griner.
According to a US official, the Russians recently made it clear that they would only negotiate for Griner and not for Whelan because, according to Russia, their cases have been handled in various ways depending on the charges leveled against each of them.
Even after Russia made it apparent that only Griner was acceptable, the Biden administration continued to propose releasing Whelan as part of this agreement.
In the end, the US had to accept it since it was apparent that Russia would reject Whelan.
The US official remarked, “It was Brittney or nothing.”
The official claims that for Biden, it was a “tough decision” but one he felt compelled to make.
Within 48 hours, Griner was transferred from the correctional colony to Moscow. She flew to the United Arab Emirates on Thursday morning. When she arrived, US representatives greeted her on the tarmac, including Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage problems. She was “all smiles,” “pleased,” and “grateful.”
Whelan family ‘devastated’
Whelan, a citizen of the United States, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and Canada, was arrested in a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who claimed he was a part of an espionage operation. He was found guilty of espionage and given a 16-year prison term, which he has strenuously protested.
In June 2021, Whelan informed that he had been serving his time at a different labor camp in Mordovia, eight hour drive from Moscow, where he had been spending his days working in a garment factory he called a “sweatshop.”
The news that Griner is returning home made Whelan’s family happy, but they also declared on Thursday that they are “devastated” that he was left behind.
Brother of Paul Whelan, David Whelan, appeared on “CNN This Morning” and said, “It’s a beautiful day for the families of the unfairly jailed and we feel good for them.” But we are concerned about Paul’s future. It’s become abundantly evident, in my opinion, that the Russian leadership wants no concessions from the US in exchange for Paul. Therefore, I’m not entirely sure what lies ahead.
President Biden announced WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian prison. pic.twitter.com/MdjtQyy9n3
— Inside Edition (@InsideEdition) December 9, 2022
Before the Griner statement, the Biden administration informed David Whelan’s family, he claimed.
David Whelan said in an email to the media that his family was “devastated” by the news and that they were growing more concerned that Paul wouldn’t make it through the remainder of his term.
Senior US government officials personally visited Whelan’s sister once it became apparent that Whelan would not be freed with Griner to “discuss and speak through” the news, according to senior administration sources.
Paul Whelan vented his dissatisfaction earlier this year when the US succeeded in getting the release of Trevor Reed, another American who had been held in Russia since 2019.
“Why was I left behind?” Whelan said in April. “While I am pleased Trevor is home with his family, I have been held on a fictitious charge of espionage for 40 months.”
Merchant of Death is a part of the exchange
On Thursday, the Russian foreign ministry announced that Bout had left and returned to Russia. According to the church, the prisoner exchange with Griner was “finished satisfactorily at Abu Dhabi Airport” on Thursday.
An official involved in the conversation claimed that the US had decided to have the swap in Abu Dhabi. “Russia was pleased with it,” followed by UAE facilitating and providing the location.
A senior UAE official told that the UAE might be helpful. When Putin and UAE President Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, also known as MBZ, met in Russia in October, one of the topics they addressed was prisoner exchanges.
According to the individual, the US was informed that MBZ intended to bring up the subject with Putin and offered nothing but support.
“The Putin meeting at the time drew criticism. But Griner was released today partly because of that encounter,” the official added.
Biden commended the United Arab Emirates for its assistance with the swap in a statement he sent on Thursday.
In a joint statement, the UAE and Saudi Arabia acknowledged their participation in the collaborative mediation efforts that resulted in the prisoner exchange. According to the report, “the mutual and strong relationship that ties both countries with the United States of America and the Russian Federation is a sign of the success of the mediation efforts.”
When asked about Saudi Arabia’s involvement, US authorities said several nations participated.
WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from Russian detention in a prisoner swap for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. See House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy's reaction. Watch: https://t.co/dgUhomJjZv
— CNN (@CNN) December 9, 2022
“We have, and I’m sure we will continue to rely on allies worldwide to work through this with us, to share their thoughts with us, and to make it clear to the Russians how crucial it is to us that these kinds of instances are resolved. We value their assistance when it comes,” said a government representative.
Former Soviet military commander Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death,” is currently serving a 25-year jail term in the United States after being found guilty of planning to kill Americans, buy and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide financial assistance to a terrorist group. Moscow criticized his 2012 sentencing as being “baseless and prejudiced,” and Bout has said he is innocent.
Bout’s American attorney, Steve Zissou, told on Thursday that the exchange of prisoners between Griner and his client was “fair.”
“As I have recommended for some time, his exchange for Brittney Griner, who has only been detained for a few months, is fair,” Zissou said in a statement. Viktor Bout has been detained for 15 years, ever since the US government targeted him in 2006.
Zissou informed that his legal team was aware of the impending transfer 24 hours prior.
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