American basketball star Britney Griner, who was detained by Russian authorities in February, has returned safely to the United States after being released from prison.
Griner, 32, “arrived at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas early Friday … and was taken to Brooke Army Medical Center for a routine evaluation,” a State Department official told CNN.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told CNN that U.S. officials who met with Greener said he was “in good spirits” and “incredibly kind.” Griner got off the plane just after 5:30 a.m. at Kelly Field.
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“So glad Brettney is back on US soil. Welcome home BG!” tweeted Roger Carstens, a State Department official who traveled with Greener, said Friday morning.
Griner’s release was secured following a prisoner swap between the US and Russia that involved international arms dealer Victor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the US in 2010.
The leg exchange was completed only after US officials saw Greener on Thursday on the Abu Dhabi tarmac where the exchange took place, the White House said; In a document posted on the Justice Department’s website, President Joe Biden signed Booth’s official commutation on December 2.
In a joint statement of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, it was noted that the countries of the Persian Gulf played an intermediary role in the exchange between the United States and Russia.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday that the exchange was not a sign of improved US-Russian relations.
Griner’s arrest and conviction comes against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has drawn further attention to the plight of other Americans in Russian custody, including Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. Whelan’s release could not be secured in the latest prisoner exchange, and Reed returned to the United States in April after a three-year trial.
On Friday, the Biden administration said it would continue to negotiate with Russia for Whelan’s release. The Russians “have things they want in the world” and Moscow knows that eventually the two sides “will come to a mutually acceptable agreement if they continue to talk to us,” a senior administration official told CNN.
Efforts to bring Greener home required “uneasy and difficult negotiations,” Biden said, thanking administration members who took part.
“This is the day we have been working on for a long time. We never stopped his release,” he said on Thursday.
The final deal came together within 48 hours, senior US administration officials said, to begin the process of moving Griner from the prison where he is serving a long sentence. Biden last week gave final approval to a prisoner swap to release Griner, an official familiar with the matter said.
Bout returned to Russia, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on Thursday. The exchange of prisoners with Griner was “successfully completed at Abu Dhabi airport” on Thursday, the ministry said.
In a statement Thursday, Griner’s family thanked Biden and his administration, as well as former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, whose Richardson Center worked on behalf of the family to help secure Griner’s release. They also thanked the public for their support.
“We sincerely thank you for your kind words, thoughts and prayers, including the Paul and Whelan family, who have generously supported Britney and our family during this heartbreaking time,” the statement read.
“We pray for Paul and for the speedy and safe return of all Americans wrongfully detained.”
As Griner’s return was heralded as a diplomatic achievement, officials and advocates expressed frustration that Whelan also failed to come home.
Whelan, a citizen of the USA, Ireland, Britain and Canada, was detained in a hotel in Moscow in December 2018 by the Russian authorities on charges of his involvement in an intelligence operation. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage. The US State Department declared that he was illegally detained.
Russia has said it handled the Whelan and Griner cases differently based on each of the charges, and recently said it would negotiate with Griner, even as the Biden administration offered to release Whelan as part of that deal.
“This is not a choice about which American to bring home,” Biden said Thursday. “Unfortunately, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Britney’s for completely illegitimate reasons. Although we have not secured Paul’s release, we will not give up. We will never give up.”
Whelan was happy that Griner had been released, but the Biden administration had not done much to secure his release, he told CNN by phone Thursday from the colony in a remote part of Russia.
“I don’t know why I’m still sitting here,” he said.
The Biden administration has ideas for “new forms of proposals” to work with the Russians to secure Whelan’s release, a senior administration official told CNN on Thursday. There is a recognition that the U.S. needs “something different” than what it has offered so far, the official said, adding that he would not rule out offering a Russian spy in U.S. custody in a potential prisoner swap.
“It’s even a very high price on the part of the president,” the official said.
Whelan’s family was happy to see Griner go home, but he was “devastated” and left behind, they said Thursday. The Biden administration told Whelan’s family of his release ahead of Griner’s announcement, David Whelan, Paul’s brother, told CNN.