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Brittney Griner freed from Russian custody in prisoner swap

(Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Brittney Griner has been freed after nearly 10 months in Russian custody and is on her way home to the United States.

The WNBA star had been detained in Russia since February on drug charges. The 32-year-old was convicted and sentenced in August to nine years in a Russian penal colony in a trial U.S. officials called a sham.

The Biden administration negotiated a prisoner swap, in which Russia released Griner in exchange for the United States’ release of arms dealer Viktor Bout, President Joe Biden announced Thursday from the White House.

“I spoke with Brittney Griner,” Biden said. “She’s safe. She’s on a plane. She’s on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held in intolerable circumstances.

“Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones — and she should have been there all along.”

Cherelle Griner, who joined Biden in the Oval Office on Thursday morning, described her wife’s imprisonment as “the darkest moments” of her life.

“Today my family is whole,” she said.

The Phoenix Mercury center was arrested on Feb. 17 at a Moscow-area airport while trying to join her Russian club, UMMC Ekaterinburg, during the WNBA offseason. She was accused of possessing less than a gram of cannabis; in Russia, possession of less than six grams of cannabis is supposed to garner no more than a fine or up to 15 days in jail.

Instead, Griner remained in custody for 294 days. She received a constant flow of support from the women’s basketball community in particular, and after what Biden called “painstaking and intense negotiations,” she is expected to reach U.S. soil within 24 hours.

The Biden administration also had sought the release of another American detainee, Paul Whelan, who has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018, but was unable to strike a deal. Biden pledged to continue to fight for his freedom.

“We have not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s.”

Whelan’s brother, David, celebrated Griner’s release, though he called his brother’s continued captivity a blow to his family.

“I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home. As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones,” he said in a statement.