WASHINGTON — President Biden says WNBA star Brittney Griner has been freed from a Russian prison.
“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” he wrote on Twitter.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the swap in a press release to agencies that Griner was swapped for convicted Russian arms trader Viktor Bout.
“The exchange took place at an airport in Abu-Dhabi on December 8th 2022 for Russian citizen Victor Bout and U.S. citizen Britney Griner, both of whom were serving out sentences in prisons in the United States and Russia respectively,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The statement said that Russia had tried “over the course of a long period of time” to secure Bout’s release, but “Washington categorically refused dialogue.”
“As a result of intense efforts, we managed to agree with the American side on organization of an exchange of Bout for Griner,” the statement said. “The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland.”
Biden was under increasing pressure to secure Griner’s release. He said last month that he hoped Russian President Vladimir Putin would be more willing to discuss a prisoner exchange after the U.S. midterm elections were over.
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
Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, is a seven-time WNBA All-Star, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first openly gay athlete signed to an endorsement contract by Nike. She also played for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg basketball team during the WNBA’s offseason.
She was sentenced last August by a Russian court to nine years in prison for carrying less than a gram of hash oil into Russia when she arrived in February of this year for play in the Russian women’s professional basketball league. Last month, she was transferred to a prison colony in Mordovia — 300 miles southeast of Moscow — to begin serving out her sentence.
In court, Griner admitted to mistakenly packing two vape cartridges in her rush to pack her luggage — but provided documents that showed the hash oil was legally prescribed by her U.S. doctor for pain management.
Her arrest in February was just days before Russia invaded Ukraine as tensions between the United States and Moscow were rising.
The U.S. government had labeled Griner “wrongfully detained” and sought a prisoner swap with Russia involving Griner and another jailed American, former Marine Paul Whelan.
The White House says it made a “substantial offer” over the summer — widely reported to involve a suggested trade of Bout — in exchange for Griner and Whelan. Biden’s tweet did not make a reference to Whelan.
White House officials maintained Griner’s freedom was an administration priority and repeatedly encouraged Moscow to take the deal or propose a serious counteroffer.
This is an ongoing story and will be updated.
Ayana Archie contributed to this report.