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Brittney Griner released from Russian prison 10 months after arrest

President Joe Biden confirmed WNBA star has been released from a Russian prison

Brittney Griner was originally arrested at a Russian airport in February. (Photo by EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

By Tyler Greenwalt - Yahoo News

Thu, December 8, 2022

In exchange for her release, the U.S. government will reportedly send convicted international arms dealer Viktor Bout back to Russia. Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death," was sentenced to 25 years in prison after being convicted of, among other things, conspiracy to kill Americans. Retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who is also currently imprisoned in Russia for the past four years on espionage charges, is reportedly not part of the prisoner swap.

"Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along," he said," Biden, standing beside Griner's wife Cherelle, said Thursday morning.

This news comes after months of back-and-forth negotiations between the U.S. and Russia following Griner's arrest in February after officials found hash oil in her luggage. She pleaded and was found guilty of drug smuggling charges and was originally sentenced to nine years. Griner was sent to a penal colony in November, but now, she will return home in time for Christmas.

In February, Griner flew to Moscow, where she plays professionally during the WNBA's offseason. Upon arrival, Russian customs officials allegedly found .702 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage. That’s less than the weight of a pen cap or a stick of gum, yet prosecutors alleged it was enough to meet the “significant amount” threshold under Russian law and asked the judge to sentence Griner to nine and a half years in prison.

By May, the U.S. government had classified Griner as "wrongfully detained," a classification that allows for the prisoner swap process to begin. In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated the U.S. had made a "substantial proposal" to bring home Griner and Whelan, who has been detained since December, 2018.

In July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the U.S. had offered Russia a “substantial proposal” aimed at securing the release of Griner and Whelan. The offer was believed to be a 2-for-1 trade for Bout, who for years had been atop the Kremlin’s prisoner exchange wish list.

While Blinken spoke directly to Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and urged him to take the deal, Russia showed no signs of accepting. Last month, Biden expressed hope last that Russian President Vladimir Putin would “be willing to talk more seriously” about an exchange for Griner since U.S. midterm elections were over and Russia wouldn’t be delivering Biden a timely political win.

It was always believed that any swap would include both Griner and Whelan, who the United States has also classified as "wrongfully detained."

“We have not forgotten about Paul Whelan," Biden said Thursday. "This was not a choice of which American to bring home.

"... 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."

Biden also stated that Whelan's family was informed prior to Griner's release that Paul Whelan would not be part of the exchange.

"I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home," Whelan's brother David said, per CBS News. "The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen."

"It's just a happy day for me and my family," Cherelle Griner said. "I'm gonna smile right now."