WNBA star Brittney Griner released from Russian prison

  • by Michael K. Lavers, Washington Blade
  • Thursday December 8, 2022
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WNBA star Brittney Griner was released Thursday in a prisoner swap with Russian authorities. Photo: Bigstock photo<br>
WNBA star Brittney Griner was released Thursday in a prisoner swap with Russian authorities. Photo: Bigstock photo

Russian authorities have released WNBA star Brittney Griner.

Griner was released in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. The exchange took place in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Update: She has returned to the U.S.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, had been serving a nine-year prison sentence after a Russian court convicted her on the importation of illegal drugs after Russian customs officials found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Griner had been incarcerated in a penal colony before her release.

President Joe Biden said he has spoken with Griner. The White House tweeted a picture of Biden in the Oval Office with Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

"She is safe," tweeted Biden. "She is on a plane. She is on her way home."

Cherelle Griner was standing alongside Biden, Harris, and Blinken at the White House when the president spoke about Brittney Griner's release.

"It's just a happy day for me and my family," said Cherelle Griner.

Cherelle Griner added she and her wife remain "committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul" Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia for spying. Although the U.S. had offered a swap of Brittney Griner and Whelan for Bout, only the basketball star was released.

Blinken issued a lengthy statement after Brittney Griner's release.

"This morning, I joined President Biden, Vice President Harris, National Security Adviser Sullivan and Cherelle Griner in the Oval Office as Cherelle spoke to her wife Brittney, who is now on her way back to the United States and to her wife's loving embrace," said Blinken. "I am grateful to the State Department team and to our colleagues across the government who worked tirelessly to secure her release.

"I especially commend Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, who is accompanying Brittney back to the United States, as well as his entire team," Blinken added. "We also extend deep appreciation to our many partners who helped achieve this outcome, including our Emirati friends, who assisted in the transfer today.

"While we celebrate Brittney's release, Paul Whelan and his family continue to suffer needlessly," added Blinken. "Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian Government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention. I wholeheartedly wish we could have brought Paul home today on the same plane with Brittney. Nevertheless, we will not relent in our efforts to bring Paul and all other U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad home to their loved ones where they belong."

LGBTQ rights groups applauded Brittney Griner's release.

"Brittney Griner's long awaited release is a relief for her wife, teammates, fans, and all in the LGBTQ community who recognized the extreme danger she faced as an out gay Black woman detained in Putin's Russia," stated GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis in a release. "Brittney's wife Cherelle never gave up fighting for her safe return, and President Biden and the State Department never wavered in their commitment to the Griners and the LGBTQ community on Brittney's behalf. We can't wait to welcome Brittney home."

The Human Rights Campaign also issued a statement.

"The wait is over. Brittney Griner is coming home, and not a moment too soon," stated new Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson. "Brittney is so much more than a WNBA superstar and Olympian, she is an American hero who had undergone unfathomable hardship. After being wrongfully held for 294 days away from her home, her friends, and most importantly her family, we celebrate her release. The HRC family is grateful for the State Department's efforts to free her — and to any member of our community facing hate and extremism — your community will never stop fighting for you, just like we never stopped fighting for Brittney."

National LGBTQ Task Force Executive Director Kierra Johnson in the organization's statement noted "number 42 [Griner's number] has been hanging on my wall as a daily reminder of the violence and discrimination Black people, LGBTQ folks, and women regularly endure in this country and around the world."

"After being held for months in a Russian prison on drug charges, we are overjoyed and relieved she has been released today in a one-for-one prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout," stated Johnson. "We thank President Biden and all those who relentlessly negotiated and advocated for her release and return to her family. Now her jersey will be a celebration and reminder of the resilience of our people and the power of our community."

Updated, 12/9/22: This story has been updated.

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