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Brittney Griner released from Russian custody in prisoner exchange

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Brittney Griner

American basketball star Brittney Griner, a Houston native, has been released from Russian custody in a prisoner exchange, President Joe Biden said Thursday morning.

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Brittney Griner

“A few moments ago I spoke with Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She’s on her way home,” Biden said in a tweet announcing the launch. Houston City Hall will be lit up in red, white and blue Thursday night in her honor, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

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At a news conference Thursday morning, Biden said he had spoken to Griner on the phone and that she is “in a good mood.”

“She is relieved to finally come home, and the fact is that she lost months of her life, she experienced unnecessary trauma,” she said. “She endured mistreatment and a show trial in Russia with characteristic determination and incredible dignity.”

White House

Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February after airport officials discovered vape canisters and cannabis oil in her luggage. She was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison for smuggling illegal drugs into the country. The White House called the legal proceedings a “sham.” Griner pleaded guilty to the charges in September and apologized for the incident, calling it an “honest mistake.”

Baylor University

Griner was a star on the Baylor University Lady Bears basketball team from 2009-2013. He has played for the Phoenix Mercury since the 2013 draft and also played basketball in China and Russia during off-seasons.

Viktor Bout

His release was negotiated in exchange for the release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the merchant of death,” CBS News first reported Thursday morning.

Griner’s wife, Cherelle, appeared at the press conference alongside Biden to announce the launch.

President Biden

“For the last nine months, all of you have been aware of one of the darkest moments of my life,” he said. “I am standing here today, overwhelmed with emotions. But the most important emotion I have right now is my sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration.”

Biden said he had been involved in “deep and intense negotiations” to release Griner since the beginning of his detention.

United States

“Even at a time of great conflict between Russia and the United States, positive things can and still do happen,” Turner said. “A huge thank you to President Biden, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and many others who worked tirelessly to bring Brittney home.”

Marine Paul Whelan

Notably, the prisoner swap did not include retired US Marine Paul Whelan, who has been in Russian custody for nearly four years on espionage charges that US officials also say are false.

Paul Whelan

Biden said Thursday that his administration has not “forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been wrongfully detained in Russia for years.”

“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” he said. “Unfortunately, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we still haven’t managed to secure Paul’s release, we’re not giving up.”

John Cornyn

US Senator John Cornyn said he was “relieved” that Griner was returning home, but disappointed that Biden has not secured the release of other detained Americans. That includes Austin Tice, an American journalist from Houston who disappeared in 2012 in Syria, whose government has not recognized him as a detainee, according to Texas Monthly.

President Biden

“Brittney has endured unimaginable suffering under the Russian regime and I look forward to her being safely reunited with her family on American soil,” Cornyn said in a statement. “President Biden must continue to push for the release of all Americans wrongfully detained by our adversaries, including Paul Whelan and Austin Tice.”

Trevor Reed

In April, Biden negotiated the release of another Texan: Trevor Reed, a former Marine who had been detained in Russia for more than two years. Reed traveled to Russia in the summer of 2019 with his Russian girlfriend to learn the language. That August, after a party, Russian police took him to a police station to sober up, but he was later charged with assaulting an officer, ABC News reported.

Konstantin Yaroshenko

In exchange for Reed’s freedom, the Americans released Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a long sentence in the United States on cocaine trafficking charges.

Soviet Union

For decades, the US government has regularly engaged in the diplomatic dance of prisoner exchanges with Russia and the former Soviet Union. But with Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the exchange comes at the most tense moment between the two countries since the Cold War.

Several Texas

Several Texas lawmakers, including US Representatives Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher of Houston, welcomed and praised Griner’s release.

“Welcome back Brittney, there’s no place like home for the holidays,” Green said in a tweet.

Mercury, Griner’s team, had posted updates on Twitter about the number of days Griner had been detained. On Thursday morning, the team shared a new post that read: “No more days. She comes home.

Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio

The two-time Olympic gold medalist is expected to arrive at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio on Thursday night for a medical evaluation.

Bobby Blanchard

Bobby Blanchard contributed to this story.

Baylor University and Texas

Disclosure: Baylor University and Texas Monthly have financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial backers play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a full list of them here.

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