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Brittney Griner Was Released From Prison in Russia in Exchange for Viktor Bout

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Brittney Griner, a US basketball star, was released from a Russian prison in exchange for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been held in an American prison for 12 years.

The transfer, which occurred during heightened tensions over Ukraine, fulfilled a major aim for Joe Biden but came at a high cost, leaving one American imprisoned for over four years.

Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, has been imprisoned since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government claim are false.

However, the agreement, the second of its kind in eight months, resulted in the release of the most prominent American detained abroad.

Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose months-long detention on drug charges drew unprecedented attention to the population of wrongfully detained people.

Biden’s approval to release a Russian felon dubbed “the Merchant of Death” highlighted the mounting pressure on his administration to bring Griner home, especially after the resolution of her criminal case and her transfer to a penal colony.

Before the White House statement, US authorities verified the trade.

Russia’s foreign ministry revealed to state media that Griner was swapped for Bout in a covert transfer at an Abu Dhabi airport.

The foreign ministry could not provide any additional information. When approached for comment, Griner’s lawyers in Russia did not react.

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Whelan’s lawyer stated that he had not been approached. However, he emphasized that these swaps were frequently arranged behind the scenes by intelligence services.

“These questions aren’t normally posed to lawyers,” he told the that. “All of these questions are resolved privately by the security services, and we, and even the inmates, find out at the end.”

Whelan’s family said in a statement that they welcomed the Griner exchange but were “devastated” that Whelan was not released.

After months of tense negotiations, Russian and US officials expressed cautious confidence, with Biden expressing optimism in November. A top Russian official stated last week that an agreement may be reached before the end of the year.

Even still, the revelation that the deal was a one-for-one swap came as a surprise considering that US authorities had stated their intention to bring both Griner and Whelan home for months.

Bout is a former Soviet lieutenant colonel who was previously classified as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers by the US Justice Department.

Brittney Griner Released By Russia In 1-For-1 Prisoner Swap For Arms Dealer Viktor  Bout, U.S. Official Says

Bout, who inspired a Hollywood film, was serving a 25-year sentence for plotting to sell weapons worth tens of millions of dollars that US investigators feared would be used against Americans.

However, the detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history sparked extraordinary public interest in a single detainee case.

Griner’s arrest in February made her the most well-known American imprisoned abroad. Her situation as an out homosexual Black woman imprisoned in a country unfriendly to the LBGTQ+ community incorporated racial, gender, and societal factors into her legal saga.

Her case became a major turning point in US-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations caused by Moscow’s war against Ukraine, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow – a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – in more than five months.

Blinken stated publicly in July, during otherwise confidential negotiations, that the US had made a “significant bid” for Griner and Whelan. According to those acquainted with the situation, the United States offered Bout.

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A public offer like this provoked a response from the Russians and risked undermining the US government’s hand. However, the declaration was intended to indicate that Biden was doing everything he could to put pressure on the Russians.

Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, and his top deputy, Mickey Bergman, negotiated the release for months.

Griner was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport when officials discovered vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, but she was still facing trial.

She admitted in court that she had the canisters, but claimed she had no criminal intent and that their inclusion in her suitcase was due to hurried packing.

Griner apologized “for my error that I committed and the disgrace that I caused on them” before being sentenced on August 4 and receiving a punishment her defenders argued was excessive for the act.

“I pray your decision does not terminate my life,” she continued.

The US State Department declared her wrongfully imprisoned in May. In a second transaction, marines veteran Trevor Reed was exchanged for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in a cocaine-trafficking scheme, raising hopes for more trades.

Whelan has been imprisoned since December 2018. He was likewise recognized as wrongfully detained by the US. In 2020, he was sentenced to 16 years in jail.

“I am very delighted Brittney Griner is on her way home,” his brother, David Whelan, said. As a family member of a Russian captive, I can only imagine how happy she will be to be reunited with her loved ones in time for the holidays.

“There is no better success than releasing a wrongfully detained person and allowing them to return home.”

The Biden administration took the correct decision in bringing Ms. Griner home and making the best settlement possible rather than waiting for one that would not happen.

“Unlike last April, US government officials informed us in advance that Paul would be left behind… that early warning allowed our family to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us.” And a disaster for Paul.

“I’m not sure if he’s aware yet, but he’ll undoubtedly learn from Russian media.” Our parents… will undoubtedly speak with him soon.”

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