WASHINGTON: US basketball star Brittney Griner has been released in a prisoner swap with Russia and is on her way back to the United States, President Joe Biden said on Thursday (Dec 8), ending what he called months of "hell".
The Russian foreign ministry said it traded Griner for Russian citizen Viktor Bout, a former arms dealer. The swap took place at the Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates, Russian news agencies said.
"She's safe, she's on a plane, she's on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances," Biden told reporters at the White House. "This is a day we've worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release."
Griner, 32, a star of the Women's National Basketball Association's Phoenix Mercury, was arrested on Feb 17. Talks to secure her release were complicated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb 24 and the subsequent deep souring of ties between Washington and Moscow.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone with Griner from the Oval Office, along with Griner's wife, Cherelle. The White House released a photo of the telephone call.
"These past few months have been hell for Brittney," and for her wife, Biden said.
A two-time Olympic gold medalist, Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport when vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia, were found in her luggage.
She was sentenced on Aug 4 to nine years in a penal colony on charges of possessing and smuggling drugs. She had pleaded guilty, but said she had made an "honest mistake" and had not meant to break the law.
Last month she was taken to a penal colony in the Russian region of Mordovia to serve her prison sentence.
Biden said the United States would continue to work to free Paul Whelan, a former Marine, who the president said Russia was treating differently.
"Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up. We will never give up," Biden said.
Biden thanked the United Arab Emirates for helping facilitate Griner's return.
Bout, 55, was one of the world’s most wanted men before his arrest, and was variously dubbed "the merchant of death" and "the sanctions buster" for his ability to get around arms embargoes.
For almost two decades, Bout became the world’s most notorious arms dealer, selling weaponry to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia and South America. For experts on the Russian security services, Moscow's lasting interest in Bout hint strongly at Russian intelligence ties.