Brittney Griner Is Free In Prisoner Exchange for Russian Arms Dealer Viktor Bout

Brittney Griner
(Photo by EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Brittney Griner is finally free as the WNBA superstar was released into American custody Thursday, Dec. 8, in a prison swap for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The release ends an almost year-long capture of Griner, who was given a nine-year sentence in a Russian penal colony in August.

The prisoner exchange was secured by joint mediation between the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the countries said in a statement.

“The joint statement issued by the [Saudi Arabian and the UAE] ministries affirmed that the success of the mediation efforts is a reflection of the mutual and solid friendship that connects both countries with the United States of America, and the Russian Federation.”

Brittney Griner Is Free At Last

The Russian foreign ministry said that the prisoner exchange was completed successfully at Abu Dhabi Airport. On Thursday morning, President Joe Biden tweeted a picture of himself and Brittney’s wife, Cherelle Griner, in the Oval Office, with a caption speaking to Griner’s release.

“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”

Cherelle led a vigorous campaign for her wife’s release after the WNBA and the NBA at first shied away from protesting Brittney’s detention. The early belief was that drawing attention away from her detention while attempting to negotiate for her release would have yielded better results. Once that didn’t work, the leagues and notable people in sports and entertainment began to amplify calls for her release.

In February 2022, Griner was arrested in a Moscow airport when airport officials found vape canisters and cannabis oil in her luggage. She eventually pleaded guilty to smuggling drugs into the country, placing the chances of her release very slim.

One of her lawyers said Griner was beginning to struggle emotionally and began to worry that Russia would not free her. She was confined to a small cell with a unique long bed to accommodate her 6-foot-9 stature. She and her two cellmates went outside once a day for an hour to walk in a small space.

American officials met with her in the penal colony last month after a Russian court rejected her appeal. Initially, the prisoner exchange attempted to include Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who later worked as a corporate security executive, who was arrested at a Moscow hotel in December 2018. Whelan was convicted in June 2020 on espionage charges, but the U.S. government believes they are manufactured.

US Still Working On Getting Whelan Released

Unfortunately, the Russians refused to include Whelan as part of the agreement, forcing President Biden to agree to a “one-for-one” swap. The two countries executed a similar trade in April when Biden decided to release Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko in exchange for Trevor Reed, an ailing former U.S. Marine held for two years on what was believed to be bogus charges of assault.

“[We] will not relent in our efforts to bring Paul and all other U.S. nationals held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad home to their loved ones where they belong,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.

America’s trade with Viktor Bout returns one of Russia’s most notorious arms dealers. His nickname, the “Merchant of Death,” was earned for the international terror he is accused of planning. Bout evaded capture for years until he was convicted in 2011 by a New York jury on four counts, including conspiring to kill American citizens. U.S. prosecutors alleged he had agreed to sell anti-aircraft weapons to drug enforcement informants posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

“While we celebrate Brittney’s release, Paul Whelan and his family continue to suffer needlessly,” Blinken continued. “Despite our ceaseless efforts, the Russian Government has not yet been willing to bring a long overdue end to his wrongful detention. I wholeheartedly wish we could have brought Paul home today on the same plane with Brittney.”

Rhett Butler is a Boxing Writer Association of America Journalist, Play-By-Play Commentator, Combat Sports Insider, and Former Mixed Martial Arts and Boxing Promoter. The New York City native honed his skills at various news outlets including but not limited to: TIME Magazine, Money Magazine, CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports, and more. Rhett hosts the PRITTY Left Hook podcast, a polarizing combat sports insider's take featuring the world's biggest names.