Brittney Griner Is Free

WNBA star Brittney Griner, who had been sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony in August, has been released to the United States.
Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, leaves the courtroom before the court's final decision in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022.
Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, leaves the courtroom before the court's final decision in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

WNBA star Brittney Griner was released to the United States in a prisoner swap Thursday, U.S. officials said, ending her 294-day ordeal in Russian custody. 

U.S. officials confirmed to VICE News and other media outlets that they secured Griner’s release in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. President Joe Biden signed off on the deal within the last week, CBS News reported. 

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Griner, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in August, is back in U.S. custody, American officials told CBS News. Biden is set to speak at the White House to announce the deal Thursday morning, according to CBS News. Paul Whelan, a former Marine convicted of spying in Russia, was reportedly not part of the deal.

President Joe Biden confirmed the deal Thursday morning in a tweet which showed him in the Oval Office with Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Biden and Cherelle Griner appeared at the White House to announce the deal. “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time,” Biden said. “It took painstaking and intense negotiations.” Griner is in “good spirits and relieved to finally be heading home,” despite having experienced “needless trauma,” Biden said, adding that Griner would be back in the U.S. within the next 24 hours.  

“We never forgot about Brittney. We haven’t forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we have not given up. We will never give up.”

Griner was first detained in February at Russia’s Sheremetyevo Airport for having less than a gram of weed oil in her luggage. Her detainment  preceded Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine by just two weeks, complicating her overseas incarceration considerably. Griner pleaded guilty to charges of drug possession and smuggling, explaining that she had a prescription for the drug from her doctor back home in Arizona, and had mistakenly packed them for her trip.

She remained in custody for seven months before she was finally sentenced to nine years in prison, just a year shy of the maximum for these charges. An effort to appeal the harsh sentence in October was denied.

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Last month, she was sent to the remote, all female penal colony IK-2 in Mordovia, a former Lenin-era gulag notorious for its harsh conditions and subjecting its prisoners to abhorrent labor practices.

“For the last nine months you all have been so privy for one of the darkest moments of my life,” Cherelle Griner said at the White House, thanking Biden for securing her wife’s release. “Today my family is whole, but as you're all aware, there are so many families that are not whole. [Brittney] and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul.”

After months of negotiations, the Russian government made it clear they would only accept a one for one swap and would not release Whelan, a senior Biden administration official said on a background call with reporters. Bout, a former Soviet military officer and the inspiration for the Nicholas Cage movie ‘Lord of War,’ was 11 years into a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill Americans and terrorism-related charges before he was released in exchange for Griner. Bout was due to be released no later than August 2029.

“This was not a situation in which we had a choice of which American to bring home,” the official said. “It was a choice between bringing home one particular American, Brittney Griner, or bringing home none.”

The official told reporters that it was a “moral decision” to secure Griner’s release, but said the administration is “determined to avoid these types of cases in the future,” including by issuing travel bans to foreign officials involved in wrongfully detaining Americans and other diplomatic measures.

Though the early months of Griner’s detainment were seemingly met with silence by her closest friends, family, and government officials, this was reportedly due to a coordinated effort organized by the U.S. Department of State to ensure her safety overseas.

Still, many of her fans criticized the lack of action from the government for months, as well as the circumstances that brought the two time Olympic gold-medalist to Russia in the first place. She is one of hundreds of professional basketball players in the WNBA who play internationally to supplement the less than stellar wages offered by the league. Griner’s incarceration reignited conversations about why athletes in the WNBA are paid a fraction of what their male counterparts make and the WNBA is now changing its policies for the 2023 season to fine players who prioritize international games before the start of the American leagues season as a way to push them into coming home.

Greg Walters contributed reporting. 

This story has been updated.