On Thursday, December 8, Russia agreed to send the WNBA star Britney Griner back to the US. Detained in Russia since February on drug smuggling charges at a Moscow airport, Griner has been swapped for the Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout. He was a soviet Air Force translator and radio agent. Bout was in a United States prison for eleven years out of the twenty-five that he was sentenced to do before being released for Griner. Bout, known as, the “Merchant of Death” is accused by the US “of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization.”
The United States tried also to bring Paul Whelan, detained in Russia since December 2018, on espionage charges. Russia disagreed and only swapped Griner for Bout. During a speech on the Griner release US President Joe Biden stated: “We've not forgotten about Paul Whalen, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years. This was not a choice of which American to bring home. We brought home Trevor Reed when we had a chance earlier this year. Sadly, for illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney’s.” He added: “ While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
Regarding Britney Griner, Biden stated: “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. This is a day we have worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release. It took painstaking and intense negotiations.”
During his speech at the White House, Joe Biden was in the company of the Vice President of the US, Kamala Harris, and Britney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner. She talked about her wife's release and said: “ […] the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration. Today my family is whole, but as you are all aware, there are so many other families that are not whole. I will say that Brittney Griner and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate B.G. being home.”
According to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, during a press conference following Biden’s decision: “ It was either Brittney or no one at all and we’re not going to apologize for that.” Russia always denied including Paul Whelan in the deal, so Biden had to take a decision, a “difficult” one, according to US officials.
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