WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian penal colony on Thursday in exchange for the U.S. releasing Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer whose nickname was once “the Merchant of Death.” The prisoner swap came amid high tension between the U.S. and Russia over the war in Ukraine.
Griner’s release was secured Thursday morning, at which time President Biden and Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, spoke with her over the phone in the Oval Office.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the release of both prisoners saying in a statement that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout was also on a plane back to Russia.
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This is the second such prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Russia in 8 months, and given the high profile detainee, it has brought attention to wrongful detainees abroad. One of those detainees is Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive and former marine from Michigan who has been held by Russia since 2018 on espionage charges. Initially, there was hope that a deal could be negotiated with Russia to have him released along with Griner, but as negotiations stalled, the Biden administration saw it more important to bring home the high-profile women’s basketball star and two-time Olympic gold medalist than the former marine who is 4 years into a 16-year sentence.
There is also concern about the Russian prisoner released by the U.S. to secure Griner’s freedom. Bout is a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel who is one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. The dealer was serving a 25-year sentence for acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles, providing material support to a terrorist organization, and conspiring to kill Americans.