U.S. professional basketball star Brittney Griner has arrived in the southwestern U.S. state of Texas after a high-stakes prisoner swap that saw notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout returned to Moscow.
Griner was flown to San Antonio and reunited with her family.
She was then taken to Brooke Army Medical Center for a medical checkup. A spokesperson for Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston said that is standard protocol.
“The U.S. government is focused on ensuring that Brittney Griner and her family’s well-being are prioritized and that all assistance available be offered in an appropriate manner,” Robert Whetstone said.
Griner would be given “all the access she needs to health care workers just to make sure that she is OK,” John Kirby, National Security Council spokesperson, told NBC on Friday, adding that Griner was in “very good spirits when she got off the plane and appeared to be obviously in good health.”
The actual exchange took place in the United Arab Emirates, where Griner and Bout crossed paths on the runway, heading to their flights home.
U.S. President Joe Biden, who had long pressed the Russian government to free Griner, officially announced her release Thursday.
“She represents the best of America,” Biden said at the White House, noting that Griner would be back in the United States within 24 hours.
“I spoke with Brittney Griner,” Biden said. “After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, thanked Biden and an array of U.S. officials for their efforts in freeing her spouse after nine months of imprisonment. Cherelle Griner said that she and Brittney Griner would continue their support for the release of Paul Whelan, an American held in Russia who was not included in Thursday’s deal.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a news conference, “This was not a choice of which American to bring home. The choice was one or none. I wish we could have brought Paul Whelan on the same plane as Brittney.”
Griner, 32, was detained at a Moscow airport in February when she arrived in Russia with vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The Women’s National Basketball Association star had gone to Russia to play for a Russian team during her off-season in the U.S., but instead was convicted on the drug charge after a brief trial, sentenced to nine years of imprisonment, and recently sent to a Russian penal colony.
Even as the U.S. has led the Western coalition of countries supplying munitions to Ukraine in its 10-month fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, the two countries held behind-the-scenes talks about the release of the two prisoners.
In the end, Whelan, a 52-year-old Michigan corporate security executive imprisoned in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless, was left out of the deal.
“Sadly, and for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” Biden said. “And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
Biden told Whelan’s family, “We will keep negotiating in good faith. I guarantee it.”
Bout, 55, had served 15 years of a 26-year prison sentence in the U.S. and was once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death.” The Kremlin had long sought his release.
Some information in this report came from Agence France-Presse and The Associated Press.