American basketball star Brittney Griner returned to the United States early Friday after being freed in a high-profile prisoner exchange following nearly 10 months in detention in Russia.
Griner was seen getting off a plane that landed Friday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.
"So happy to have Brittney back on U.S. soil. Welcome home BG!" Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens tweeted shortly after.
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Griner was exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout. The deal achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden — but failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.
Biden’s authorization to release Bout, the Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” underscored the heightened urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby told NBC's "TODAY" show that Whelan wasn't an option in the U.S. negotiations with Russia, adding "this wasn't a choice between Paul or Brittney."
"The only deal we could secure was Brittney for Mr. Bout, that was the only deal available to us," Kirby said. "So, the choice really was either we bring Brittney home and get one American released or we get none. And obviously we chose to bring Brittney home."
He said the U.S. will continue to fight for Whelan's release and that giving up Bout "doesn't mean that there aren't going to be options going forward."
The athlete, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at an airport there in February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, Baylor University All-American and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, injected racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.
Video aired on Russian media Thursday showed Griner stepping off a plane in Abu Dhabi, where she was met by a U.S. official for the exchange. She is then seen crossing paths with Bout. Russian representatives greeted Bout with a hug and the arms dealer was later shown by Russian media walking off a plane in Moscow, where waiting relatives embraced him, NBC News reports.
Biden spoke by phone with Griner. U.S. officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counseling.
In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the U.S. in 2010.
Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.
Following Griner’s arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, she pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.
She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent and she accidentally packed them. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.