Mon | Jan 30, 2023

Griner in ‘good spirits’ in US after Russian prisoner swap

Published:Saturday | December 10, 2022 | 12:54 AM
This combo of images shows Viktor Bout (left), a suspected Russian arms dealer at the criminal court in Bangkok, on August 20, 2010 and WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner (right) in a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki, outs
This combo of images shows Viktor Bout (left), a suspected Russian arms dealer at the criminal court in Bangkok, on August 20, 2010 and WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner (right) in a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki, outside of Moscow, Russia, on July 27, 2022.

SAN ANTONIO (AP):

Brittney Griner returned to the United States Friday and was reunited with her wife nearly 10 months after her detention in Russia made the basketball star the most high-profile American jailed abroad and set off a political firestorm.

Griner’s status as an openly gay Black woman, her prominence in women’s basketball and her imprisonment in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LGBTQ community heightened concerns for her and brought tremendous attention to the case. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after her arrest complicated matters further.

The deal that brought home Griner, 32, in exchange for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden. But the US failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.

Asked if more such swaps could happen, Russian President Vladimir Putin said yesterday that “everything is possible,” noting that “compromises have been found” to clear the way for Thursday’s exchange.

Biden’s authorisation to release Bout, the Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” underscored the heightened urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star, was seen getting off a plane that landed yesterday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.

“So happy to have Brittney back on US soil. Welcome home BG!” tweeted Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

“We’re just so happy to have her back,” Vanessa Nygaard, head coach of the Mercury, said in an interview outside of the team’s Phoenix stadium.

“We are looking eagerly forward to welcoming her back to our community,” said Nygaard, adding that she hadn’t yet spoken with Griner.

Biden spoke by phone with Griner, who was reunited with her wife, Cherelle. US officials who met her upon arrival said she was in “very good spirits” and appeared to be in good health, according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who noted that she would be offered specialised medical services and counselling.

The WNBA star, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. The US State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” – a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.

Griner pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case. She was sentenced to nine years.

She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent and accidentally packed them. Her defence team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.