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U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, a Houston native, has been released from Russian custody in a prisoner exchange, President Joe Biden said Thursday morning.
“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden said in a tweet announcing the release. Houston City Hall will be lit red, white and blue Thursday night in her honor, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
In a Thursday morning press conference, Biden said he had spoken with Griner on the phone and that she is “in good spirits.”
“She’s relieved to finally be heading home, and the fact remains that she’s lost months of her life, experienced needless trauma,” he said. “She endured mistreatment and a show trial in Russia with characteristic grit and incredible dignity.”
Griner was arrested in a Moscow airport in February after airport officials discovered vape canisters and cannabis oil in her luggage. She was sentenced to nine years in 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.”
Griner was a star on the Baylor University Lady Bears basketball team from 2009-13. She has played for the Phoenix Mercury since the 2013 draft and also played basketball in China and Russia during the offseasons.
Her 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 release.
“Over the last nine months, y’all have been so privy to one of the darkest moments of my life,” she said. “Today I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions. But the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration.”
Biden said he’d been engaged in “painstaking and intense negotiations” to release Griner from the beginning of her detainment.
“Even in a time of major conflict between Russia and the United States, positive things can and do still occur,” Turner said. “Tremendous thanks to President Biden, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and many others who worked tirelessly to bring Brittney home.”
Notably, the prisoner swap did not include retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been in Russian custody for nearly four years on espionage charges that U.S. officials also claim are false.
Biden said Thursday his administration has not “forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years.”
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” he said. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up.”
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said he was “relieved” Griner would return home but disappointed that Biden did not secure 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 acknowledged him as a detainee, according to Texas Monthly.
“Brittney has endured unimaginable suffering under the Russian regime, and I am eager for her to be safely reunited with her family on American soil,” Cornyn said in a statement. “President Biden must continue to press for the release of all Americans wrongfully detained by our adversaries, including Paul Whelan and Austin Tice.”
In April, Biden negotiated for 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 accused of assaulting an officer, ABC News reported.
In exchange for Reed’s freedom, Americans released Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a lengthy sentence in the United States on cocaine-trafficking charges.
For decades, the U.S. government has periodically engaged in the diplomatic dance of prisoner exchanges with Russia and the former Soviet Union. But with Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine, the swap comes at the most fraught moment between the two countries since the Cold War.
Several Texas lawmakers, including U.S. Reps. Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher of Houston, celebrated and praised Griner’s release.
“Welcome back Brittney, there’s no place like home for the holidays,” Green said in a tweet.
The Mercury, Griner’s team, had posted updates on Twitter of the number of days Griner had been detained. On Thursday morning, the team shared a new post that read: “No more days. She’s coming home.”
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 contributed to this story.
Disclosure: Baylor University and Texas Monthly have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.