WNBA star Brittney Griner, who has been held in Russian detention for months, is reportedly free after the Biden administration negotiated her release from a Russian penal colony in exchange for international arms dealer Viktor Bout. CBS News reports that President Joe Biden signed off on the trade even though it meant leaving behind Paul Whelan, a retired Marine and corporate security executive who remains jailed in Russia.
Five former U.S. officials told CBS News the agreement had been reached as of last Thursday. Biden was reportedly in the Oval Office Thursday morning with Griner's wife Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking with Griner on the phone. Griner was expected to quickly undergo a medical evaluation, per standard procedure for freed U.S. prisoners.
Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner.— President Biden (@POTUS) December 8, 2022
She is safe.
She is on a plane.
She is on her way home. pic.twitter.com/FmHgfzrcDT
Griner's return will end a nearly year-long saga that began in February when she was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was jailed on drug charges. Biden had sought the release of the 32-year-old athlete as well as Whelan in prolonged and often public negotiations between the two countries. "I am telling you, I am determined to get her home and get her home safely – along with others, I might add," Biden said on Nov. 9.
Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence after being accused of spying, which the U.S. has denied. The U.S. insists it doesn't have any Russian spies in its custody, which Russians reportedly want in return for Whelan's release.
Griner's release is a stunning turn of events. Last month, she began serving a nine-year sentence at a Russian penal colony more than 200 miles east of Moscow. She pleaded guilty in July but said she had no criminal intent, saying the canisters, which she had been prescribed to treat chronic pain, were packed inadvertently.