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“She is on her way home”: Biden secures Brittney Griner’s release in a prison swap with Russia
The WNBA star will be back in the US within 24 hours and is said to be all smiles, deeply grateful and looking forward to getting home to Cherelle, her family and the broader WNBA community.
When the White House released President Joe Biden’s public schedule last Sunday evening, the guidance didn’t go beyond a Tuesday visit to Phoenix, Arizona to discuss his plans to rebuild US supply chains through American semiconductor chip manufacturing. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Monday declined to detail to reporters why the schedule seemed so sparse. But by now, you’re probably aware of what he was up to: Securing the release of basketball superstar Brittney Griner, who had been wrongfully detained in Russia since February.
“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner,” Biden said in a tweet posted to his official account. “She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”
Griner spoke to the president and her wife Cherelle from the tarmac at a site in the United Arab Emirates, a Middle Eastern country that facilitated the transit point upon her release.
She was met by Roger Carstens, one of the administration’s top hostage negotiators, to let her know he was there to bring her home on behalf of the president and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. A senior administration official confirmed that Griner was transferred from the penal colony she was sent to after her appeal was denied to Moscow, Russia’s capital city, a couple of days ago as the deal was finalized. (Recent reports about the penal colony indicated Griner’s potential exposure to forced labor, homophobia and racism; an official said the US would be eager to learn anything she is willing to share with respect to racism or whatever she experienced while she was detained.)
Upon hearing the news, the officials said Griner was in an extremely upbeat mood, all smiles, deeply grateful and looking forward to getting home to Cherelle, her family and the broader WNBA community. She is currently in the air and will be back in the country within 24 hours where she will be offered a wide range of support options. In remarks from the Roosevelt Room, Biden said that Griner deserves space, privacy and time with loved ones to recover and heal from the experience.
Officials said Griner’s release is the product of months of painstaking negotiations and the result of extraordinary efforts across the US government, including follow-ups throughout the summer and fall with alternatives to the administration’s initial offer to the Russians. The officials added that the deal reflects the administration’s two-fold responsibility to bring Americans like Griner home and prevent people from being wrongfully detained in the first place.
“Black women and queer folks are too often left behind and I’m grateful for the work of advocates, her family, President Biden and this administration for their continuous work to bring Brittney home,” Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri and one of the most outspoken advocates in Congress for Griner’s release, said in a statement. “As we celebrate, we must not ignore the fact that it is the same systemic and racist violence that led to Brittney Griner’s unjust detainment as a political prisoner that continues to perpetuate the arrest, incarceration and deportation of Black and brown people across our country and world. We will never stop our advocacy until everyone harmed by injustice is free.”
The US traded Griner for Victor Bout, a Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” who had served 12 years in prison and was scheduled for release in 2029. “Any inference that this has become the norm is mistaken,” an official said when asked if the prisoner swap incentivized other countries to hold Americans hostage to secure the release of their own locals.
“For nearly ten long months, Brittney Griner suffered unthinkable trauma as she was wrongfully imprisoned by the Russian government,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “[Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s cruelty against Brittney — and his monstrous actions against Ukraine — are staggering reminders of his brazen contempt for human rights, human dignity and the rule of law.”
The swap did not include Paul Whelan, another American wrongfully detained in Russia. The administration said that this was a choice between bringing Griner home or no one at all, not a choice between Griner and Whelan. They said this reality became clear in recent weeks and that the president, made the tough choice to accept the opportunity to secure Griner’s release and continue to work to bring Whelan home.
A top official spoke to Whelan from prison to talk through Griner’s release and his case. The administration had been worried about his condition after the US went weeks without hearing from him. Another official visited his sister Elizabeth to do the same. And when they are ready, the president will make himself available to personally reaffirm his commitment to bringing Paul home.
The White House also was clear that no other issues, including the war in Ukraine, were discussed during the negotiations, which were described to reporters as “very targeted and very focused.” The administration briefed key partners, including Ukrainian officials to convey this message.
Cherelle, Griner’s wife, said that even in the joy of knowing that she will soon be reunited with Brittney, she knows there are still families that are enduring what she’s gone through the past nine months of tremendously missing a loved one.
“Today my family is whole, but as you are aware there are so many families who are not whole,” Cherelle said this morning. “BG’s not here to say this, but I will gladly speak on her behalf that BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate BG being home.”
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