WNBA star Brittney Griner Released from Russian Custody in Prisoner Swap

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Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who had been held in Russian prisons for 10 months on drug charges, was released from custody Thursday. Griner was released as part of a long-talked-about prisoner swap negotiated by the U.S. State Department for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

According to CBS News, the one-for-one exchange was approved by President Joe Biden within the past week. Details of the deal remain unclear, but CBS News reports that at least one concession was made by only agreeing to swap one American prisoner for one Russian. Previously, U.S. officials were in talks to include another imprisoned American, U.S. Marine Corps veteran and former security executive Paul Whelan, in any prison swap deal.

After her release, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, on the phone. And per standard procedure for freed U.S. prisoners, Griner was expected to undergo a medical evaluation before returning home.

“I spoke with Brittney Griner. She’s safe. She’s on a plane,” Biden said in a press address on Thursday. “She’s on her way home. After months of being unjustly detained in Russia and held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones — and she should have been there all along.”

Griner, who plays basketball in Russia during the WNBA offseason, was arrested by Russian authorities in February after customs officials found two cannabis vape cartridges in her carry-on luggage. The two-time Olympic gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges, but claimed she did not intend to bring the vape cartridges into Russia, stating that she packed them by mistake during frantic preparations for her trip. Maria Blagovolina, one of Griner’s lawyers in Russia, argued that the basketball star’s doctor-prescribed use of marijuana for chronic pain indicates she “may have used it for medical but not recreational purposes.”

In October, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison, and though she appealed the conviction, she lost. Just last month, the athlete was transferred to one of the harshest types of Russian penal colonies for women. Griner’s lawyer confirmed the transfer at the time, explaining that Griner was moved into one of the 35 high-security correctional institutions for women; on Nov. 17, Reuters reported that Griner has been sent to Female Penal Colony IK-2 in Yavas, 300 miles southeast of Moscow.