WNBA star Brittney Griner is on her way home Thursday after spending months wrongfully detained in the custody of Russia. President Joe Biden announced Griner's release in a news conference.
"She's safe. She's on a plane. She's on her way home," Biden said.
Griner — a two-time Olympic gold medalist and center for the Phoenix Mercury — was released Thursday after nearly 10 months imprisonment in a one-for-one prisoner exchange for international arms dealer Viktor Bout, as reported by CNN.
Five former U.S. officials told CBS News the agreement had been reached as of last Thursday.
CBS News was first to report the swap, which took place in the United Arab Emirates, after it was confirmed by a U.S. official. The one-for-one exchange agreement negotiated with Moscow in recent weeks was given final approval by Biden within the last week, according to sources familiar with the deal, CNN reported.
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Griner was held for 10 months in Russian prisons on drug charges.
A White House official said the president spoke to Brittney Griner by phone from the Oval Office, where he was joined by Griner's wife Cherelle, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
As a standard procedure for freed U.S. prisoners, Griner is expected to quickly undergo a medical evaluation.
Speaking in a news conference from the White House shortly after Griner was released, Biden said that he was "glad to be able to say Brittney is in good spirits," and that she was looking forward to getting home. Biden dismissed the "show trial in Russia" that landed her in prison and said "she didn't ask for special treatment."
To secure Griner's release, the president ordered Bout to be freed and returned to Russia. Biden signed the commutation order cutting short Bout's 25-year federal prison sentence.
The one-for-one exchange of Griner for Bout leaves retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan still imprisoned in Russia.
Whelan has been in Russian custody for nearly four years. He was convicted on espionage charges that the U.S. has called false.
"We've not forgotten about Paul Whelan," Mr. Biden said Thursday, adding "we will never give up" on securing his release.
Griner was detained in February at a Russian airport on drug charges. She later pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the alleged discovery of cannabis-derived oil cartridges in her luggage.
After five months of stalled diplomacy and various permutations of potential swap arrangements — including a previously unreported offer by the U.S. this past summer to send two prisoners back to Russia for the two Americans — sources say the one-for-one exchange came together over the last two weeks.
Whelan, who once worked as a corporate security contractor, was in Moscow for a friend's wedding when he was detained at a hotel in December 2018. Russian authorities later sentenced him to 16 years in prison for espionage — a charge the U.S. and Whelan denied. This month marks the fourth anniversary of Whelan's time in Russian custody.
CNN reported that Bout, who was most recently held at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois, was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency in Thailand following a sting operation in 2008. He was convicted of conspiring to kill Americans and began his 25-year sentence a decade ago.
Griner's arrest coincided with the February start to Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and all U.S. dealings with the Kremlin have been complicated by that conflict. The U.S. has said both Griner and Whelan were "wrongfully detained," and officials have suspected that Russia has been using the American prisoners as leverage.
WNBA's Engelbert: 'Inspired by Courage' of Russia-Imprisoned Brittney Grinerhttps://t.co/jQjJgwONcI#eNews— Athletic Business (@AthleticBiz) September 13, 2022