Russia has freed the jailed US basketball star Brittney Griner in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, the so-called “Merchant of Death” who had been held in a US prison for 12 years.
Joe Biden, who had made Griner’s release a top priority after she spent almost 10 months in jail on drug charges, said in an address from the White House he found her “in good spirits” when speaking after the swap in Abu Dhabi.
“She’s safe, she’s on a plane, she’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances,” he said. “Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.”
But the president expressed regret the deal did not include Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government deny.
Biden said: “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.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, stood with Biden and the vice-president, Kamala Harris, and said she was “overwhelmed with emotion”.
“The most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration. He just mentioned this work is not easy, and it has not been,” she said.
“Today my family is whole, but as you all are aware, there’s so many other families who are not whole. [Brittney] is not here to say this but I will gladly speak on her behalf and say that BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today.”
The second such exchange in eight months, following the freeing of Trevor Reed in April, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad.
The Russian foreign ministry confirmed to state media that Griner had been exchanged for Bout in a secret swap in Abu Dhabi but did not give more details.
Later footage emerged of the exchange of Griner for Bout on the grounds of Abu Dhabi’s airport; the Financial Times reported it was shot by Russia’s FSB security service.
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees. She was arrested in February, convicted in August and sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony.
Biden’s authorization to release Bout underscored the pressure his administration faced to get Griner home. But it came at a price with the exclusion of Whelan, also classified as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.
Whelan’s family welcomed the Griner exchange but said they were “devastated” he was not freed. “US government officials let us know in advance that Paul would be left behind,” said his brother, David Whelan. “That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul.”
Whelan himself spoke to CNN from Russia. “I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said. “I am greatly disappointed more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up.”
He said he was aware the Russians treated him differently from Griner because he was convicted of espionage, and urged Biden to elevate efforts for his release “regardless of the price they might have to pay”.
Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said the charges against Whelan were “a sham”.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home, the choice was one or none,” he said at a lunchtime briefing. “I wholeheartedly wish that we could have brought Paul home today on the same plane as Brittney … but we will stay at it.”
After months of negotiations, Biden said in November he was hopeful. A top Russian official said last week a deal was possible before the end of the year. Even so, that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given US officials had for months expressed determination to bring home Griner and Whelan.
Bout is a former Soviet lieutenant colonel who the US justice department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He was serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons US officials said were to be used against Americans.
But the detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case.
Griner’s status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ+ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga.
Her case emerged as a major inflection point in US-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow – a call between Blinken and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov – in more than five months.
Blinken revealed publicly in July that the US had made a “substantial proposal” for Griner and Whelan. People familiar with it said the US offered Bout. Such a public overture drew a rebuke from the Russians and risked weakening the US hand. But the announcement was meant to communicate that Biden was doing what he could.
The release followed months of negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, and his top deputy, Mickey Bergman. Joint mediation between United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia also played a role, the countries said on Thursday.
Griner was arrested at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow when officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July. She said in court she had no criminal intent and the canisters’ presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.
Before being sentenced on 4 August and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offense, Griner apologized “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought”. She added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”
In May, the US state department designated her as unlawfully detained. A separate trade, the marines veteran Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in a cocaine-trafficking conspiracy, spurred hope of more exchanges.
The Associated Press contributed reporting