(NEW YORK) — The U.S. has swapped WNBA star Brittney Griner for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to a senior U.S. official.
The basketball star was taken into custody at a Moscow area airport in February in possession of vaping cartridges containing hashish oil, an illegal substance in Russia.
Griner pleaded guilty in July and was sentenced to nine years in prison on Aug. 7. She appealed the sentence, but was quickly rejected in October.
Here’s how the news is developing. All times Eastern:
Dec 09, 1:53 PM EST
Brittney Griner has reunited with her wife
Brittney Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, have now seen each other in person, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed at Friday’s press briefing.
“She has been reunited with her wife, Cherelle. U.S officials who met her on the ground said she was in very good spirits, appears to be in good health,” Jean-Pierre said. “She was immediately taken to Brooke Army Medical Center [in San Antonio] where she is being offered a range of support options.”
Jean-Pierre did not give a timeline on when Griner might return home to Arizona.
“Every individual is different and those decisions are up to them and their families,” she said. “Typically upon arrival, people are offered a wide range of additional support, including full medical checkup, a mental health checkup.”
Dec 09, 1:17 PM EST
Viktor Bout gives first interview since release
Convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was traded for Brittney Griner and is now home in Russia, told Russian state-owned media outlet RT, “thank God” the exchange happened.
Asked about his first feelings at home, Bout replied: “Feelings need to be dealt with. We need to find more words to describe it all.”
Bout noted that he didn’t see any anti-Russia sentiments from prison staff.
Dec 09, 8:31 AM EST
Video shows Griner’s wife hearing she’s on her way home
The White House has shared video of the moment Thursday morning when President Joe Biden told Cherelle Griner her wife was on the way home.
“She’s on the ground,” Biden told Griner as they hugged.
“Stop it,” she replied.
‘Yep. She’s on the ground,” Biden said as she hugged him again.
The video also shows Griner exclaim, “It’s just such a good day!” as Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken look on, beaming.
-ABC News’ Molly Nagle
Dec 09, 8:17 AM EST
Kirby says Griner ‘appears to be in good health’
Brittney Griner is “in very good spirits” and “appears to be in good health,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
“We’ve talked to our team on the ground who met her there [in San Antonio] as well as the team that traveled overseas with her on that airplane,” Kirby said. “She’s now going to go to the treatment facility, she’s going to get looked after by docs and nurses there, just to make sure everything is OK.”
-ABC News’ Molly Nagle
Dec 09, 6:21 AM EST
Brittney Griner arrives back in the United States
A plane believed to be carrying Brittney Griner landed in the U.S. early Friday, nearly 10 months after she was detained in Russia.
The Gulfstream jet landed at about 5:30 a.m. ET at San Antonio’s Kelly Air Force Base.
Dec 08, 10:14 PM EST
Griner family thanks Biden administration
Brittney Griner’s family in a statement Thursday night offered their “sincere gratitude” to President Joe Biden and his administration for their efforts in bringing the WNBA star home.
The family also expressed their gratitude to former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Mickey Bergman, the executive director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, for their help in facilitating the release.
The statement thanked the family of Paul Whelan, the former U.S. Marine still held captive in Russia, for their support during “a heartbreaking time.”
“We pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans,” the statement said.
Griner is expected to arrive in the U.S. late Thursday or early Friday.
Dec 08, 5:21 PM EST
Viktor Bout’s attorney says swap ‘fair’
The attorney for Viktor Bout called the prisoner exchange “fair” in a statement Thursday.
“As we have urged for some time, given the fifteen long years that Viktor Bout has been in custody since the United States government targeted him in 2006, his exchange for Brittney Griner, who has only been in custody for a few months, is fair,” the attorney, Steve Zissou, said. “Like Brittney Griner, Viktor Bout will soon be reunited with his family.”
Zissou thanked the Russian foreign ministry and Russian President Vladimir Putin for Bout’s release from prison.
“Hopefully, this is just the first of many reasonable agreements between the U.S. and Russia that will lead to better relations and a safer world,” Zissou said.
The exchange has drawn concern from some U.S. lawmakers, as well as criticism from the Drug Enforcement Administration agent who oversaw the agency’s investigation of Bout.
Dec 08, 4:22 PM EST
Video shows Brittney Griner boarding plane in Russia
Video released by Russian state media on Thursday shows Brittney Griner boarding a plane in Russia and saying she’s happy to be heading home.
The video was taken before Griner was released into U.S. custody.
Dec 08, 4:00 PM EST
Griner will continue to advocate for other Americans held abroad
Lindsay Colas, Brittney Griner’s agent, said Griner “has carried herself with courage, grace and grit” and is expressing thanks to everyone who helped bring her home, including U.S. officials, the WNBA and the NBA.
Colas especially thanked President Joe Biden, who she said “kept his word.”
“Also, to so many people around the world who raised their voices and stood with us – especially Black women, the LGBTQ+ community and civil rights leaders – thank you,” Colas said in a statement.
Colas said Griner will continue to advocate for other Americans held abroad and called people out by name, including Paul Whelan, who remains imprisoned in Russia, and Americans who are in Iran, Venezuela, China, Syria, Mali and Rwanda.
“Our commitment to President Biden and to the families of Americans who are being held hostage and wrongfully detained – especially Elizabeth and David Whelan, on behalf of their brother Paul Whelan, who remains in Russia and whose continued detention weighs heavily on our hearts – is to continue our work in the movement to bring them home,” Colas said.
Dec 08, 3:44 PM EST
Swap initiated on Nov. 29 with US Marshals taking custody of Bout
The prisoner swap that resulted in Brittney Griner’s release has been in the works since at least Nov. 29, when the U.S. government requested the removal of Viktor Bout from USP Marion in Marion, Illinois, according to a court document unsealed Thursday.
The document, signed by George Turner, assistant United States attorney from the Southern District of New York, requested the Bureau of Prisons allow U.S. Marshals to take custody of Bout sometime between Dec. 2 and Dec. 16.
The move was “based on the significant foreign policy interests of the United States,” the document said, but did not mention Griner or a prisoner exchange.
The government expended significant resources and time to bring Bout to justice, but a source familiar with the prosecution of Bout said they recognized the “competing interests” that resulted in his release from U.S. custody.
Whether Bout represents a future threat, this source said that while Bout is not old he has been “out of the game,” which would impede his ability to go back to his former operations. However, the source called Bout a “shrewd operator” with “a lot of friends” in Russian military and intelligence circles.
-ABC News’ Aaron Katersky
Dec 08, 3:28 PM EST
Whelan’s sister: US needs to find way around Russian ‘fairy tale’ of him being a spy
Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of ex-Marine Paul Whelan, the U.S. citizen being held in Russia as an alleged spy, told ABC News in an interview Thursday she is happy for Brittney Griner, but also frustrated Paul remains in custody.
“The Russians have been clear with all of these cases that they treat them all separately,” Elizabeth Whelan told ABC News. “We try to bundle them together and get everybody out at once. We don’t want to leave anyone behind. But that is not necessarily the way our opponents are dealing with this situation.”
“We’ve always known that the Russians were treating Paul separately, and therefore, we always knew that there was a chance that this would happen, that Brittney would be released first,” she continued.
U.S. officials said they wanted to exchange Viktor Bout for both Griner and Paul Whelan, but that Russian officials would not engage on both and said either Griner could be swapped for Bout or no one could be swapped.
“I think we need to start dealing with Russia as the entity that it actually is now and not the way we might want it to be,” Elizabeth Whelan said. “They talk about Paul being a spy, but they’re the ones who set Paul up and created this spy story that is sort of based in a fairy tale [that] has to be undermined. We have to find a way around that.”
Dec 08, 2:26 PM EST
Biden delivered news of release to Cherelle Griner in person
President Joe Biden delivered the good news about Brittney Griner’s release in person directly to her wife, Cherelle, at the White House Thursday morning, according to press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
“Cherelle had been invited to the White House for a meeting with the national security adviser Jake Sullivan. When she arrived, she was welcomed into the Oval Office by President Biden, who personally delivered the news that Brittney would be returning home today,” Jean-Pierre said.
ABC News’ Mary Bruce pressed the White House on any plans Biden has to meet with Griner upon her return to the United States, but Jean-Pierre didn’t have any guidance.
“I don’t have anything to preview at this time. Our efforts right now, our focus, is to get her home safely and to get her back to her family, to her team, to her loved ones, and give her all the necessary tools she will need to reengage, to come back to the U.S. in the way that she chooses, right?” Jean-Pierre said.
-ABC News’ Molly Nagle
Dec 08, 2:13 PM EST
Senators celebrate release, but fear it incentivizes Americans being ‘scooped up’
Senators from both side of the aisle celebrated Brittney Griner’s freedom from Russian detention Thursday, but several members also questioned the decision to swap Griner for known international arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told ABC News that while he sees Griner’s return as “good news” and a “significant accomplishment by the Biden administration,” he’s worried about the precedent that could be set for exchanges of high-profile Russian criminals like Bout.
“It was clear over many months that Putin was only going to release Brittney Griner in exchange for this person,” Coons said. “And that’s the risk, is that the more we engage in such exchanges, the more Americans are at risk of being scooped up and held as leverage to try and secure the release of folks who we would rather not have to release.”
Republicans shared Coons’ concern.
“I worry about — this sets in motion, you know, just ‘grab an American,"” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said.
“Well, I hate it,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said when asked about the administration’s move to free Bout. “But I think you’re left with the decision: yes or no. And like I said, I think I would never be happy to have an American in a Russian penal colony, or under any circumstances, so unfortunately, that’s the sort of way Putin does business.”
Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., agreed with that assessment.
“We traded a basketball player for a known terrorist criminal,” Marshall said, suggesting that the U.S. should have driven a tougher bargain.
-ABC News’ Allie Pecorin
Dec 08, 1:07 PM EST
Paul Whelan calls CNN from prison
Paul Whelan called CNN from prison on Thursday, saying he’s “happy that Brittney is going home today and that Trevor [Reed] went home when he did — but I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here.”
Whelan said he’s “greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release,” adding, “I was arrested for a crime that never occurred.”
Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia for nearly four years, said his message to Biden is: “This is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly, and I would hope that he and his administration would do everything they could to get me home. regardless of the price they may have to pay at this point.”
Biden said Thursday that the prisoner swap was “not a choice” between Brittney Griner and Whelan.
“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,” he said.
“We’ll continue to engage the Russians on Paul, and we’ll continue to look at everything possible to bring him home,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken added.
-ABC News’ Ben Gittleson
Dec 08, 12:38 PM EST
Phoenix Mercury, Griner’s WNBA team, releases statement: ‘She’s on her way’
The Phoenix Mercury, Brittney Griner’s WNBA team, celebrated their star player’s return Thursday.
“Miraculously, mercifully, the count of days detained has ended at 294, and our friend, our sister is headed back home where she belongs,” the team wrote on Twitter. “The emotions for our organization, just like for our fans and so many across the world, are those of joyous celebration, deep gratitude, grief for the time lost, and sincere hope for all families still awaiting the return of a loved one.”
Griner has played her entire nine-year career with Phoenix, making eight All-Star teams and winning the WNBA title in 2014.
The team had posted each week, saying how many days Griner had been in detention in Russia and continuing to advocate for her release. Teammates like Kia Nurse, Brianna Turner, Sophie Cunningham and Shey Peddy tweeted their relief at Griner’s release.
“BG’s strength in this process, her unwavering belief that resolution would come, and the hope she displayed every day is what kept all of us believing this day would come,” the Mercury said in its joint statement with the Phoenix Suns.
“We no longer have to Bring BG Home — she’s on her way,” they concluded.
Dec 08, 12:29 PM EST
Griner headed to Brooke Army Medical Center
Brittney Griner is en route to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, a spokesperson at the base confirmed to ABC News. She’s expected to arrive late Thursday night or early Friday, according to the base.
-ABC News’ Gina Sunseri and Ben Gittleson
Dec 08, 11:28 AM EST
WNBA, NBA commissioners praise release
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert applauded the release of Griner, an eight-time league All Star, and said she showed “extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of enormous adversity.”
“There has not been a day over the past ten months where we all haven’t had Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy and relief knowing that she will soon be reunited with her family, the WNBA player community, and her friends,” Engelbert wrote in a statement.
The WNBA celebrated Griner all season, putting her No. 42 on every court and even having every player in this year’s All Star Game wear her number. Many players spoke out throughout the season for her release.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who had also consistently pushed for Griner’s release, said in a statement, “Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends. We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”
Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart, the 2018 WNBA MVP and a teammate of Griner on both the U.S. national team and Russian squad UMMC Ekaterinburg, had posted a plea for Griner’s release every day on Twitter, counting the days and tagging President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and the White House in the posts. On Thursday, she wrote, “BG is FREE!!! 294 days and she is coming home!!!”
Dec 08, 9:22 AM EST
Griner negotiations were ‘painstaking,’ Russians treating Whelan differently: Biden
The road to Griner’s release involved “painstaking and intense negotiations,” President Biden said as he thanked many across his administration who “worked tirelessly to secure her release.”
“She’s relieved to finally be heading home and the fact remains that she’s lost months of her life, experienced a needless trauma,” he said. “She deserves space, privacy and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained.”
Biden said Griner landed in the United Arab Emirates and that the country helped facilitate the transfer.
Paul Whelan was not part of this exchange, the president said, adding, “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. We will never give up,” Biden said. “We remain in close touch with Paul’s family — the Whelan family — and my thoughts and prayers are with them today.”
“They have to have such mixed emotions today,” he continued. “And we’ll keep negotiating in good faith for Paul Whelan. I guarantee that. I say that to the family. And I guarantee you. I urge Russia to do the same to ensure that Paul’s health and humane treat are maintained until we can bring him home. I don’t want American to be detained one extra day if we can bring that person home.”
Dec 08, 9:20 AM EST
Blinken says Russia not willing to release Paul Whelan
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he’s grateful to everyone “who worked tirelessly” to bring Brittney Griner home, but lamented that Paul Whelan and his family “continue to suffer needlessly.”
“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,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Dec 08, 9:02 AM EST
Biden says Griner will be home within 24 hours
President Joe Biden confirmed that WNBA star Brittney Griner is on her way back to the U.S. and will be back within 24 hours.
The president said she’s in “good spirits.”
“She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home,” Biden said.
“After months of being unjustly detained in Russia held under intolerable circumstances, Brittany will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and — and she should have been there all along,” he said.
A senior U.S. official told ABC News that Biden signed off on the prisoner swap last week.
Dec 08, 8:59 AM EST
Whelan family disappointed he wasn’t included in swap
The brother of Paul Whelan, an ex-U.S. Marine currently being held in Russian prison, said they were told beforehand he would not be included in the swap and were “able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us.”
“At some level, our family has steeled ourselves for this likelihood,” Whelan’s brother, David, wrote in a statement. “And I think, as the use of wrongful detentions and hostage diplomacy continues around the globe, it’s clear the US government needs to be more assertive. If bad actors like Russia are going to grab innocent Americans, the US needs a swifter, more direct response, and to be prepared in advance.”
“In Russia’s case, this may mean taking more law-breaking, Kremlin-connected Russians into custody,” he added. “It’s not like there aren’t plenty around the world.”
David Whelan also made sure to note he and his family were happy Griner has been released and said he knew the cases “were not intertwined.”
“There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home,” he wrote. “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.”
The Whelan family issued a similar statement in April when U.S. citizen Trevor Reed was freed from Russia in a prisoner swap. David Whelan alluded to that in his statement Thursday, saying, “The sentiments I shared in April about Trevor are unchanged: this is the event we wish for so much for our own family. She will be reunited with her family. Brittney is free. And Paul is still a hostage.”
Dec 08, 8:53 AM EST
Cherelle Griner calls past months ‘one of the darkest moments of my life’
Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, called the past months “one of the darkest moments of my life,” but flashed a large smile on her face knowing “BG” will be home soon.
“Today I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions, but the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration,” she said as she stood alongside President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“It’s a happy day for me and my family,” she said.
Dec 08, 8:45 AM EST
Lavrov confirms swap, Putin pardoned Griner
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed that Griner was released and the prisoner exchange was carried out at Abu Dhabi Airport.
“For a long time, the Russian Federation has been negotiating with the United States on the release of V.A. Bout,” Lavrov said in a statement. “Washington categorically refused to engage in dialogue on the inclusion of the Russian in the exchange scheme. Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot.”
“As a result of the efforts made, it was possible to agree with the American side on the organization of the exchange of V.A.Bout for B. Griner,” he continued.
The U.S. has said for months it had offered Bout as part of a prisoner swap for Griner and Russian detained ex-Marine Paul Whelan.
Ombudsman of the Russian Federation Tatyana Moskalkova said Putin pardoned Griner before her release in the swap and she and Bout “should not serve the rest of their sentences in their respective countries.”
Dec 08, 8:34 AM EST
Who is Viktor Bout?
Griner has been swapped for the convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to a senior U.S. official.
Bout was arguably the world’s best-known illegal arms trafficker and his capture in 2008 at a hotel in Thailand came at the end of a nearly decade-long hunt by the U.S.
Bout, 55, emerged as a kingpin in the global illegal arms trade during the 1990s, accused of fueling some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, particularly in Africa. Sourcing weapons from the huge stockpiles of the collapsed Soviet Union, the Russian used a fleet of Soviet-built transport aircraft to supply vast quantities of arm, often circumventing international embargoes.
Dec 08, 8:27 AM EST
Biden speaks to Griner aboard plane
President Joe Biden shared a photo of himself talking on the phone to Brittney Griner from the White House, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, saying she was on a plane, safe and headed home.
He is also shown hugging Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife.
Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner.
She is safe.
She is on a plane.
She is on her way home. pic.twitter.com/FmHgfzrcDT
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 8, 2022
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