US basketball star arrives home after Russia prisoner swap

Brittney Griner, an American basketball star, returned to the United States on Friday morning. She had been in a Russian prison but was freed in exchange for an arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death.

Brittney Griner, an American basketball star, returned to the United States on Friday morning. She had been in a Russian prison but was freed in exchange for an arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.”

An AFP reporter saw Griner, 32, strolling across a tarmac as her jet arrived in San Antonio, Texas; she had been detained in Russia in February on drug charges.

US media stated that she would be taken to a neighbouring military medical facility for evaluation.

Griner was traded in Abu Dhabi on Thursday for Viktor Bout, a Russian man serving a 25-year sentence in a US prison. Bout is 55 years old and is a citizen of Russia.

Russian official media broadcast a scene in which a dreadlocked Griner and a smiling, seemingly at ease Bout ran into each other on the airport tarmac on their way to their respective planes.

In a statement released Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden said he had spoken with her and that she was in “good spirits” despite having endured “needless trauma.”

Alongside escalating tensions over Ukraine, the arrest of Griner, a two-time Olympic gold winner, WNBA champion, and LGBTQ trailblazer, occurred at a Moscow airport.

She received a nine-year term in August after being found guilty of possessing vape cartridges containing a trace amount of cannabis oil.

Accused of arming rebels in some of the world’s worst conflicts, Bout was arrested in a US sting operation in Thailand in 2008, extradited to the United States, and given a 25-year prison sentence in 2012.

The Russian official television said that he arrived in the country on Thursday. He reassured his mother, Raisa, “Don’t worry, everything is OK; I love you very much.”

While Paul Whelan, a former US Marine detained in Russia since 2018 on spying charges, was not included in the swap that led to Griner’s release on Thursday, his family and friends celebrated her liberation.

In an interview with CNN, he expressed his great disappointment. 

“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” Whelan told CNN from a Russian prison camp.

With the words, “we will never give up,” Biden vowed to keep fighting for Whelan’s release.

“Sadly, for illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” he stated.

On Griner’s release, Biden remarked, “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. It took painstaking and intense negotiations.”

Biden announced Griner’s release on Thursday, and he was joined by her wife, Cherelle Griner, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

‘I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions,’ Cherelle Griner said.

“Today, my family is whole, but as you all are aware, there are so many other families who are not whole.”

The Griner family expressed gratitude to President Biden and his administration, adding that they “pray for Paul and the fast and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans.”

Cathy Engelbert, the commissioner of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), where Brittney Griner has been a star for the Phoenix Mercury for a decade, said the league felt a “collective wave of joy and relief” at the news.

Griner’s release was the result of “mediation efforts” by the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, according to a joint statement issued by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Biden praised the UAE for its role in this.

However, Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre of the White House stated that “no mediation was involved” and that “the only countries that negotiated this deal were the United States and Russia.”

Griner played for a Russian professional club when she was arrested, as many WNBA players did during the off-season.

She admitted responsibility but said she had no intention of breaking the law or using illegal narcotics in Russia.

Griner stated that a doctor in the United States had given her authorization to use medical cannabis to treat the agony of her numerous wounds.

Russian law prohibits the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

The Russian foreign ministry claimed that talks with Washington had gone on for “a long time” to obtain Bout’s release. The United States had initially “refused dialogue” on including him in any swap.

“Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to work to rescue our compatriot actively,” it said.

Bout’s arms trafficking has been the topic of multiple books and television series, as well as the 2005 film “Lord of War,” starring Nicolas Cage.

According to TASS, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, sent a video message to Bout in which he acknowledged that the arms trader had been subjected to “powerful physical and moral pressure” behind bars.

When asked about the possibility of releasing Bout, a senior US defence official said, “there is a concern that he would return to doing the same kind of work that he’s done in the past.”

As of this past Friday, Moscow maintained that relations with Washington were a “crisis.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Izvestia newspaper, “it is probably wrong to draw any hypothetical conclusions that this could be a step towards overcoming the crisis that we currently have in bilateral relations.”

The situation of ties “continues to remain in a sad state.”

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