US President Joe Biden on Thursday announced that American basketball player Brittney Griner was on her way to the United States.
Brittney was arrested in February in Russian capital Moscow for allegedly carrying cannabis oil. She was sentenced to nine years in jail after a trial.
The Biden administration has secured Brittney's release in a prisoner swap. In exchange of Griner, the US government is releasing Russian arms dealer Viktour Bout, called as the 'merchant of death'.
Biden shared the news of Brittney's release in a tweet on Thursday.
"Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home," said Biden on Twitter, before making a statement.
Tune in as I deliver an important announcement. https://t.co/2BVdSsmIFA— President Biden (@POTUS) December 8, 2022
"After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be in the arms of her loved ones... She endured mistreatment and a shrewed trial in Russia with characteristic grit and dignity," said Biden in an address, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Vice President Kamala Harris, and Brittney's wife Cherelle Griner.
Who is Brittney Griner?
Brittney Griner is an American basketball player.
Brittney has played for US national women's team. She has been part of two Olympics gold medal-winning squads.
Brittney is also a popular player in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) league. She is one of the highest-paid WNBA players and plays for Phoenix Mercury team.
Brittney has also played for a Russian team in a Russian basketball league.
"In 2015, Brittney Griner joined UMMC Ekaterinburg of the Russian Premier League, and the team won the EuroLeague championship the following year. Ekaterinburg also claimed the title in 2018, 2019, and 2021," notes The Britannica Encyclopaedia.
Why was Brittney Griner arrested?
Brittney was arrested in February on charges of possession vape cartridges containing hash oil.
Brittney had pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Though she pleaded guilty, Brittney argued that she did not intentionally bring narcotics into Russia as she was charged with. She said that she packed in a hurry and the oil she was arrested over came with her unintentionally.
It has been said Brittney was arrested so that Bout could be exchanged for — just like Biden did.
"She has been dubbed a 'political pawn' amid speculation by Russian media that she could be swapped with Russian arms trader, Viktor Bout, nicknamed The Merchant of Death. The Kremlin has long called for the release of Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US for conspiring to kill American citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation," noted Sky News.
Who is Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout?
Notably, Russia has not released Brittney. She has only been released under a US-Russia prisoner swap.
In exchange of Brittney, the US government has released arms dealer Viktor Bout, called the 'merchant of death'. However, he's seen as a swashbuckling businessman who was unjustly imprisoned after an overly aggressive US sting operation.
Bout is a former Soviet air force officer. He gained fame supposedly by supplying weapons for civil wars in South America, the Middle East and Africa. His clients were said to include Liberia's Charles Taylor, longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and both sides in Angola's civil war. The 2005 Nicolas Cage movie, “Lord of War” was loosely based on him.
On Thursday, the U.S. and Russia announced that Griner had been exchanged for Bout, and that he was headed home. Russia had pressed for Bout's release for years and as speculation grew about such a deal, the upper house of parliament opened a display of paintings he made in prison – whose subjects ranged from Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to a kitten.
The show of his art underlined Bout's complexities. Though in a bloody business, the 55-year-old was a vegetarian and classical music fan who is said to speak six languages. Even the former federal judge who sentenced him in 2011 thought his 11 years behind bars was adequate punishment.
“He's done enough time for what he did in this case,” Shira A. Scheindlin told The Associated Press in July as prospects for his release appeared to rise.
Bout was convicted in 2011 on terrorism charges. Prosecutors said he was ready to sell up to $20 million in weapons, including surface-to-air missiles to shoot down U.S. helicopters. When they made the claim at his 2012 sentencing, Bout shouted: “It's a lie!”
Bout has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, describing himself as a legitimate businessman who didn't sell weapons.
Bout had not been scheduled to be released until 2029. He was held in a medium-security facility in Marion, Illinois.
Bout was estimated to be worth about $6 billion in March 2008 when he was arrested in Bangkok, Thailand. U.S. authorities tricked him into leaving Russia for what he thought was a meeting over a business deal to ship what prosecutors described as “a breathtaking arsenal of weapons — including hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, machine guns and sniper rifles — 10 million rounds of ammunition and five tons of plastic explosives.” He was taken into custody at a Bangkok luxury hotel after conversations with the Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation's informants who posed as officials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC. The group had been classified by Washington as a narco-terrorist group.
He was brought to the U.S. in November 2010.
(With PTI, AP inputs)