Brittney Griner, the American basketball star detained by Russian authorities in February, has safely returned to the United States after being released from custody in a prisoner exchange.
US officials who met Griner on the ground Friday morning said she was “in good spirits and incredibly gracious,” one told CNN. A person who appeared to be Griner stepped off the plane shortly after 5:30 a.m. ET Friday at Kelly Field in San Antonio.
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“So happy to have Brittney back on US soil. Welcome home BG!” tweeted Roger Carstens, a State Department official traveling with Griner, Friday morning.
One of her first stops is expected to be “at a treatment facility where she can get the medical care that she might need after 10 months in detention,” the National Security Council’s John Kirby told CNN on Thursday.
Griner’s release was secured after a prisoner swap between the US and Russia that involved international arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was arrested in 2008 in Thailand and extradited to the US in 2010.
The exchange was conducted Thursday in Abu Dhabi, senior Biden administration officials said. A joint statement from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia said the Gulf countries played a role mediating the exchange between the US and Russia.
It is not a sign of improvements in US-Russian relations, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Friday.
Griner’s arrest and conviction played out against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and added further attention to the plights of other Americans in Russian custody, including Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. Whelan’s release could not be secured in the latest prisoner swap, while Reed returned to the US in April after a nearly three-year ordeal.
The Biden administration will continue negotiating with Russia to secure Whelan’s release, it said Friday. Russians “have things they want in this world,” and Moscow knows ultimately the two sides will reach “a mutually acceptable arrangement if they keep talking to us,” a senior administration official told CNN.
President Joe Biden said efforts to bring Griner home took “painstaking and intense negotiations” as he thanked members of his administration who were involved.
“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release,” he said Thursday.
The final deal came together over 48 hours, senior US administration officials said, launching the process of moving Griner from the penal colony where she was serving a lengthy sentence. Biden gave final approval for the prisoner swap freeing Griner over the past week, an official familiar with the matter said.
Bout has returned home to Russia, the Russian foreign ministry said Thursday. The prisoner exchange with Griner was “completed successfully at Abu Dhabi Airport” on Thursday, the ministry said.
Griner’s family thanked Biden and his administration Thursday in a statement, as well as former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, whose Richardson Center worked on behalf of the family to help secure Griner’s release. They also expressed gratitude for the outpouring of public support they’ve received.
“We sincerely thank you all for the kind words, thoughts and prayers – including Paul and the Whelan family who have been generous with their support for Brittney and our family during what we know is a heartbreaking time,” the statement said.
“We pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans.”
As Griner’s return is heralded as a diplomatic achievement, officials and supporters have expressed disappointment Whelan also couldn’t come home.
A US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, Whelan was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges he has vehemently denied. The US State Department has declared him wrongfully detained.
Russia has handled Whelan’s and Griner’s cases differently based on what each has been accused of, it has said, and signaled recently it only would negotiate over Griner, even as the Biden administration made offers to get Whelan released as part of this deal.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said Thursday. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
Whelan was happy Griner was released but “disappointed” the Biden administration has not done more to secure his release, he told CNN Thursday by phone from a penal colony in a remote part of Russia.
“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said.
The Biden administration has ideas about “new forms of offers” to try with the Russians to secure Whelan’s release, a senior administration official told CNN on Thursday. There is a recognition the US needs to make available “something more, something different” from what they have offered thus far, the official said, not ruling out offering a Russian spy in US custody in a potential prisoner swap.
“There is a willingness to pay even a very big price on the part of this president,” the official said.
Whelan’s family was happy Griner was headed home but “devastated” he was left behind, they said Thursday. The Biden administration told Whelan’s family of her release ahead of the Griner announcement, Paul’s brother David Whelan told CNN.