Brittney Griner released: Russia frees WNBA star in prisoner swap; US releases arms dealer Viktor Bout

WASHINGTON– Russia released WNBA star Brittney Griner Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner swap, while the US released notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, American officials said. The swap achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, but it came at a heavy price – and left an American imprisoned in Russia for nearly four years.

The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, prompted the release of the most prominent American imprisoned abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose months in prison for drug offenses brought unprecedented attention from the wrongfully incarcerated population.

Biden’s approval to release a Russian criminal nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” underscored the escalating pressure his administration was facing to bring Griner home, particularly following the recent resolution of their criminal case and subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

The swap was confirmed by US officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations, who were not authorized to publicly discuss the deal prior to a White House announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Russian and US officials had expressed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of tense negotiations, with Biden saying in November he was confident Russia would reach an agreement once mid-term elections were completed. A senior Russian official said last week that an agreement could be reached before the end of the year.

Still, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap came as a surprise, given that US officials had been expressing their determination for months, both Griner and Paul Whelan, a since December 2018 in Russia jailed Michigan corporate security executives to bring home on espionage charges his family and the US government have ruled baseless.

With the release of Bout, the US freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel who the Justice Department once described as one of the most prolific arms dealers in the world. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood film, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons that US officials said would be used against Americans .

The Biden administration was ultimately willing to swap Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. The incarceration of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a whirlwind of unprecedented public attention for a single incarceration case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.

Griner’s arrest in February made her the most prominent American imprisoned abroad. Her status as an openly gay black woman imprisoned in a country where authorities were hostile to the LBGTQ community injected racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal history, making each development a matter of international concern.

Her case not only drew unprecedented attention to dozens of Americans wrongfully imprisoned by foreign governments, but also emerged as a major turning point in US-Russia diplomacy at a time when relations were deteriorating Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

The exchange came despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the detention of Americans prompted a rare diplomatic opening that resulted in the highest known contact between Washington and Moscow — a phone call between Foreign Minister Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov — in more than five months.

In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken publicly revealed in July that the US had made a “substantive proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Although he did not specify the terms, people familiar with the matter said the US had offered Bout.

Such a public overture drew a rebuke from the Russians, who said they would rather settle such cases privately, and risked weakening the US government’s negotiating hand for this and future deals by making the government appear too desperate . But the announcement was also intended to convey to the public that Biden was doing what he could and put pressure on the Russians.

In addition to efforts by US officials, the release also followed months of backchannel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and frequent emissary in hostage negotiations, and his senior deputy Mickey Bergman. The men had traveled abroad several times in the past year to discuss exchange scenarios with Russian contacts.

Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officers said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July but was still on trial because a guilty plea in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.

She admitted in court that she owned the canisters but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.

Before being convicted on Aug. 4 and receiving a sentence that her attorneys said was out of line for the offense, an emotional griner “apologized for the mistake I made and the embarrassment I caused them.” . She added, “I hope your judgment doesn’t end my life.”

Her supporters had been largely silent for weeks after her arrest, but that approach changed in May when the State Department declared her unlawfully detained. A separate trade, Navy veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the US of conspiracy to traffic cocaine, raised hopes that more such exchanges might be in the works.

Whelan has been held in Russia since December 2018. The US government also classified him as wrongly imprisoned. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020.

Whelan was not included in the Reed prisoner swap, escalating pressure on the Biden administration to ensure any deal that brought Griner home included him.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Brittney Griner released: Russia frees WNBA star in prisoner swap; US releases arms dealer Viktor Bout

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