Jailed basketball star Brittney Griner has been released by Russia – with the US handing over notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange, officials have said.
The high-level prisoner swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieves a top goal for US President Joe Biden but carries a heavy price and leaves behind an American jailed for nearly four years in Russia.
The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, has procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad.
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose months-long imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.
Mr Biden’s authorisation to release a Russian criminal once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” underscored the escalating pressure his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
The swap has been confirmed by US officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations who were not authorised to publicly discuss the deal before a White House announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Mr Biden spoke with Griner on the phone on Thursday while her wife, Cherelle, was in the Oval Office.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home,” Mr Biden said later.
In an address from the White House, he said the “past few months have been hell for Brittney” but she is in good spirits.
Russian and US officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Mr Biden saying in November he was hopeful Russia would engage in a deal now the midterm elections are over.
A top Russian official said last week a deal was possible before the end of the year.
Even so, the fact the deal was a one-for-one swap is a surprise given US officials for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges his family and the US government have said are baseless.
In releasing Bout, the US freed a former Soviet army lieutenant colonel once described by the Justice Department as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers.
Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons US officials said were to be used against Americans.
The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. The detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.
Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and made each development a matter of international importance.
Her case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but it also emerged as a major inflection point in US-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
The exchange was carried out despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the imprisonment of Americans produced a rare diplomatic opening, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow — a phone call between secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov — in more than five months.
In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Mr Blinken revealed publicly in July the US had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Mr Whelan. Though he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the US had offered Bout.
Such a public overture drew a chiding rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to resolve such cases in private, and carried the risk of weakening the US government’s negotiating hand for this and future deals by making the administration appear too desperate. But the announcement was also meant to communicate to the public that Mr Biden was doing what he could and to ensure pressure on the Russians.
Besides the efforts of US officials, the release also followed months of backchannel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his top deputy Mickey Bergman. The men had made multiple trips abroad in the last year to discuss swap scenarios with Russian contacts.
Griner was arrested at the Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.
She acknowledged in court having the canisters but said she had no criminal intent and their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.
Before being sentenced on August 4 and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offence, an emotional Griner apologised “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them”. She added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”
Her supporters had largely stayed quiet for weeks after her arrest, but that approach changed in May once the State Department designated her as unlawfully detained. A separate trade, marine veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the US in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, spurred hope additional such exchanges could be in the works.
Mr Whelan has been held in Russia since December 2018. The US government also classified him as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.
Mr Whelan was not included in the Reed prisoner swap, escalating pressure on the Biden administration to ensure any deal to brought home Griner also included him.
On Thursday, Mr Biden said the US has “not forgotten about” him and will “never give up” trying to secure his release.
Mr Whelan’s brother David said in a statement he is “so glad” for Griner’s release but also disappointed for his family.
He credited the White House with giving the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not fault officials for making the deal.
“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms Griner home and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.
Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, pledged that “BG and our coalition of activist athletes” will be lending their voices to help free other Americans detained abroad, including Whelan.
“Throughout this ordeal, BG has carried herself with courage, grace and grit; and President Biden made us a promise, and then kept his word and did what was necessary to bring her home,” Ms Colas said in a statement. “We are forever grateful for his follow-through on that commitment.”
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said: “There has not been a day over the past 10 months where we all haven’t had Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts, and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy and relief knowing that she will soon be reunited with her family, the WNBA player community, and her friends.
“BG has shown extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of enormous adversity.”