​Jailed US basketball star freed by Russia ​

Thursday - 08/12/2022 08:25 Author: Editors Desk Source: News Corp Australia Network:
Jailed US basketball star Brittney Griner has been freed by Russia in a prison swap deal.
Brittney Griner after a court hearing near Moscow in August. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press
Brittney Griner after a court hearing near Moscow in August. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

The United States and Russia have carried out a prisoner exchange, swapping American basketball star Brittney Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout after months of negotiations that took place despite strained relations between the two countries.

President Joe Biden on December 8 confirmed the swap in a press conference, stressing that Griner was "wrongfully detained" after a "show trial" in Russia.

"This is a day we've worked toward for a long time,” said Biden, whose administration in late July proposed a deal for a prisoner swap to secure the release of Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.

Biden said Griner would need time to recover from "needless trauma" after being "wrongfully detained" and held in a Russian penal colony in the central region of Mordovia.

Biden made the announcement at the White House flanked by Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

"I'm just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions," Cherelle Griner said, describing the ordeal of her wife's imprisonment as "one of the darkest moments of my life."

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told MSNBC that Griner would receive a medical check after arriving back in the United States later on December 8 and then would be able to "get back to her family, her teammates, and her life."

He said it was a bittersweet day because the exchange failed to include Whelan, whose release along with other U.S. citizens Biden pledged to continue to work toward.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time all-star for the U.S. Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), was arrested at a Moscow airport in February and accused of possession of vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil. She was passing through Moscow en route to Yekaterinburg, where she has played in the WNBA off-season.

Griner was sentenced in August to nine years in prison after she confessed to having the cannabis oil, which his illegal in Russia. She told the court a doctor had recommended medicinal cannabis for treatment of pain from injuries sustained during her basketball career.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a post on Telegram that the exchange took place at the Abu Dhabi airport.

The ministry said it had been negotiating with Washington to secure Bout's release "for a long time" and that initially the United States had "refused dialogue" on including him in any swap.

"Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot," it said. "The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland."

Bout, nicknamed the "Merchant of Death," served 15 years of a 25-year sentence in the United States for arms dealing. He was accused of selling arms to rebels in conflicts such as the one in Colombia between government forces and rebels with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Bout was arrested in Thailand in a U.S. sting operation in 2008, extradited to the United States, and sentenced in 2012.

The 55-year-old has extensive knowledge of Russian weapons at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to purchase weapons systems for the war in Ukraine. There is concern that he will return to illegal arms dealing, although some say his knowledge of weapons systems likely is obsolete.

Whelan has been imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges that he denies. Whelan’s brother, David Whelan, said in an e-mail on December 8 that the Whelan family was informed by U.S. government officials on December 7 that Whelan would not be freed in the exchange.

"That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul. I do not know if he is aware yet, although he will surely learn from Russian media," David Whelan said.

He also said his family is glad that Griner is on her way home and said the Biden administration had made the right decision to "make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen."

With reporting by CBS, MSNBC, and CNN
 Keywords: United States, Russia

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