Brittney Griner Freed from Russia in ‘Merchant of Death’ Prisoner Swap

All hope seemed exhausted for WNBA star Griner after being sent to a Russian gulag, but she’s been traded for a nefarious arms dealer

Just weeks after being transferred to one of Russia’s most feared penal colonies for getting caught with a little cannabis oil in a Moscow airport back in February—resulting in a nine-year prison sentence—WNBA star Brittney Griner is coming home. In fact, as of Thursday morning, she was already on a flight heading back to the United States.

“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner,” President Biden tweeted. “She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”

As CBS News reports, Griner was freed in a prisoner exchange Thursday between Russia and the U.S. for notorious international (but mainly Russian) arms dealer Viktor Bout—a former lieutenant colonel in the Soviet army who was serving a 25-year sentence in the States on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles, and provide material support to a terrorist organization. Bout has maintained his innocence, but he is still known to his accusers ’round the world as “The Merchant of Death.”

The exchange took place in the United Arab Emirates, according to CBS, in a one-for-one exchange agreement negotiated with Moscow in recent weeks and which got final approval from Biden within just the last week, with five former U.S. officials saying the deal had been reached as of last Thursday.

While the president further reported that he’s “glad to be able to say Brittney is in good spirits,” perhaps less enthusiastic about the exchange are the loved ones and supporters of U.S. Marine Paul Whelan. Whelan has been imprisoned in Russia for four years of a 16-year sentence on what the U.S. says are false espionage charges, and he was quite was notably left out of this new freedom package.

“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden assured Thursday, adding, “We will never give up.”

Ambassador John Sullivan, who quit his job as the top U.S. diplomat in Moscow in September, explained to CBS Mornings on Thursday that the Russian exchange offer was a “take it or leave it proposition,” and that the talks to free Griner were “extremely difficult negotiations,” because the Russians were interested only in trading her for Bout.

“We’re dealing with a government that isn’t bound by law or morals, our counterparty,” Sullivan said. “It’s not a typical diplomatic negotiation. And my understanding is that the Russians really presented the president, President Biden, with a take it or leave it proposition. One for one, it was Brittney. And, unfortunately, we’ve had to leave other Americans, in particular Paul Whelan.”

If it comes as any solace to Whelan’s family, Sullivan said he is confident that the White House and State Department were “turning with a laser focus on” freeing him, now that Griner’s ten-month ordeal is over.

At trial, Griner admitted she was in possession of the pot oil, but said it had been the result of hurried packing, not any criminal intent. She pleaded with the court before it handed down her sentence: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”

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