For the first time in nearly 300 days, Brittney Griner, the American basketball star detained by Russian authorities in February, will spend the night in a bed in her home country.
Griner, 32, returned to the United States early Friday after being released in an exchange for an international arms dealer.
Griner was “in good spirits” and “incredibly friendly,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told CNN.
Texas Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee told CNN that Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA superstar, was able to call her father from the plane.
“They all want to see her and they may even want to see her here at home, but I know it was a happy phone meeting to hear her daughter’s voice,” Lee said.
Griner went to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, for a routine evaluation, a State Department official told CNN.
The facility will be a big change from the penal colony where his life was “exhausting”, according to Lee, and according to one of his Russian lawyers, made more miserable by its unusual size.
Griner’s release came after a US-Russia prisoner swap involving international arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was arrested in 2008 in Thailand and extradited to the US in 2010.
Bout’s switch was finalized only after U.S. officials saw Griner on Thursday on the tarmac at the Abu Dhabi airport where the exchange took place, the White House said; President Joe Biden had signed Bout’s official commutation on Dec. 2, the document posted on the Justice Department’s website shows.
A joint statement by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia said the Gulf countries played a mediating role in the exchange between the US and Russia.
The exchange is not a sign of improvements in US-Russian relations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday.
Griner’s arrest and conviction came against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and brought more attention to the plight 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 to negotiate with Russia to secure Whelan’s release, he said Friday. The Russians “have things they want in this world,” and Moscow knows the two sides will eventually reach “a mutually acceptable agreement if they continue to talk to us,” a senior administration official told CNN.
Biden said efforts to bring Griner home required “painful and intense negotiations” as he thanked members of his administration who participated.
“This is a day we’ve worked for for a long time. We never stopped pushing for their freedom,” he said Thursday.
The final deal was put together over 48 hours, senior US administration officials said, starting the process to move Griner from the penal colony where he was serving a lengthy sentence. Biden gave final approval to the prisoner swap to free Griner last week, an official familiar with the matter said.
Bout has returned to Russia, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Thursday. The prisoner exchange with Griner was “successfully completed at Abu Dhabi airport” on Thursday, the ministry said.
Griner’s family thanked Biden and his administration in a statement Thursday, 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 thanked the public support they have received.
“We sincerely thank you all for your 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,” said the communicated
“We pray for Paul and for the speedy and safe return of all wrongfully detained Americans.”
With Griner’s return being heralded as a diplomatic achievement, officials and supporters have expressed disappointment that Whelan was also unable to return 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 the Whelan and Griner cases differently based on what each has been charged with, he said, noting recently that he would negotiate only on Griner, even though the Biden administration made offers to free Whelan as part of this agreement.
“This was not a choice about which American to bring home,” Biden said Thursday. “Unfortunately, for completely illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet secured Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
Whelan was glad Griner was freed but “disappointed” the Biden administration didn’t do more to secure his release, he told CNN by phone Thursday 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 deals” to try with the Russians to secure Whelan’s release, a senior administration official told CNN on Thursday. There is a recognition that the U.S. needs to make available “something more, something different” than it has offered so far, the official said, not ruling out offering a Russian spy in U.S. custody in a possible exchange of prisoners
“There is a willingness to pay even a very high price on the part of this president,” the official said.
Whelan’s family was glad Griner was coming home, but “devastated” she was left behind, they said Thursday. The Biden administration told Whelan’s family about his release before Griner’s announcement, Paul’s brother, David Whelan, told CNN.
Glimpses of Griner’s time in Russian custody emerged Friday through a video posted by RIA News Telegram.
A small card with Griner’s photo is zipped to a white metal bed frame in a room that appears to be a bunk bed, undated video shows. No location is given. The bed is covered in white sheets, one with a deep blue stripe, and is among five beds seen in the room with pink walls and sheer white curtains along four windows.
In another clip, Griner sports a short haircut, minus his now-famous dreadlocks, as he pushes along a food line a tray with two plates, apparently among dozens of small plates and bowls seen in the open shelves. Griner then sits down next to a woman at a small square table, holding a utensil in her mouth, shows a still image.
Next, in a different, bright room, Griner wears a dark scarf while sitting in front of a woman and writes with a pen on paper, the RIA News Telegram reel shows. Again wearing a headscarf, the American basketball star in another painting holds a telephone and, after an exchange with a woman, looks up and smiles.
In a final outdoor scene, Griner leans on a table to write on a piece of paper while a woman wearing a hat with earflaps speaks, the video shows.
Griner’s Russian lawyer said he had cut his hair while in a penal colony to make life easier during the Russian winter. Maria Blagovolina told ESPN – and confirmed to CNN – that Griner had cut his hair almost two weeks ago when he arrived at the prison. Griner had told her attorneys when she was washing her hair that she would catch a cold and catch a cold, Blagovolina said.
Most of the women in the penal colony worked during the day sewing uniforms, but Griner couldn’t sit at a work table because of her height (she’s 6-foot-9) and her hands were too big to handle the sewing . Instead, Griner wore tissue all day, his attorney said.
Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA and is a six-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
For years, she played in the offseason for a Russian women’s basketball team, until she was arrested in February for drug trafficking at an airport in the Moscow region.
Griner testified that he had inadvertently packed the cannabis oil found in his luggage. She was sentenced to nine years in prison in early August and was transferred to a penal colony in Mordovia in mid-November after losing an appeal.
On Friday, Phoenix Mercury president Vince Kozar addressed the question of whether players should continue to play in certain countries during the WNBA’s offseason.
“Players have incredible agency with how they choose to make a living and where they choose to play,” he told CNN. “It’s fair to say that a lot of players, you know, have to consider their safety when they’re looking at where they’re going to make a living overseas.”
“My goal is that no player has to go abroad,” he said. “My goal is for players to be able to play here in the WNBA and make a living, and that’s why we’re working here in Phoenix and in 11 markets around the country.”