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09 December 2022

Basketball star Brittney Griner returns home to US after Russian prisoner swap

09 December 2022

Basketball star Brittney Griner has returned to the United States after being freed in a high-profile prisoner exchange following nearly 10 months in detention in Russia.

Griner was released in exchange for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

The plane carrying her touched down at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, and Griner was later seen disembarking from the aircraft.

The deal achieved a top goal for US President Joe Biden, but failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed in Russia for nearly four years.

Mr Biden’s authorisation to release Bout, the Russian once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death”, underlined the urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

Griner, who also played professional basketball in Russia, was arrested at an airport there after authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil.

Before her conviction, the US state department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” – a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.

Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medallist, Baylor University All-American and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star.

Her status as an openly gay black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, injected racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.

The Russian foreign ministry confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi and Bout had been flown home.

Mr Biden has spoken by phone with Griner. US officials said she would be offered specialised medical services and counselling.

In releasing Bout, the US freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the US in 2010.

Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that US officials said were to be used against Americans.

Following Griner’s arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, she pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.

She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent, and that she had accidentally packed them.

Her defence team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.

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