Brittney Griner was released from prison in Russia on Thursday and is on her way back to the US, President Joe Biden said.
The WNBA player and two-time Olympic gold medalist had been detained since February when she was arrested at a Moscow airport with vape cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage. According to CNN and CBS, Griner was released as part of a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
"This is a day we've worked towards for a long time," Biden said at a news conference on Thursday announcing her release.
"She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home," Biden tweeted, alongside photos of Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, in the Oval Office on Thursday.
Griner had recently been transferred to a Russian penal colony to begin her nine-year prison sentence.
As a WNBA star, two-time gold medal Olympian, and a Black gay woman, Griner was the most high-profile American detained overseas. Her arrest took place just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Griner is “in good spirits” and “relieved to finally be heading home," Biden said, but the past few months "have been hell" for her and her loved ones.
"The fact remains that she’s lost months of her life experiencing needless trauma," Biden said. "She deserves space, privacy, and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained."
Standing with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Cherelle Griner thanked the president's administration and everyone else who worked to secure her wife's release.
"Today is just a happy day for me and my family, so I’m going to smile right now," she said.
In a statement, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert thanked the Biden administration "and all those who played a role in bringing BG home today."
“There has not been a day over the past ten months where we all haven’t had Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy and relief knowing that she will soon be reunited with her family, the WNBA player community, and her friends," Engelbert said. "BG has shown extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of enormous adversity."
In a statement, Griner's agent and Wasserman EVP Lindsay Colas said that they are "overwhelmed with gratitude" to the Biden administration for bringing the athlete back home.
"It’s through hardship that character is revealed, and over the last nine months, we have seen the best of so many," Colas said. "At the top of that list are BG and President Biden. Throughout this ordeal, BG has carried herself with courage, grace and grit; and President Biden made us a promise, and then kept his word and did what was necessary to bring her home."
The swap took place at Abu Dhabi International Airport, according to CNN.
Bout has the nickname the "Merchant of Death" due to being one of the biggest arms dealers of the '90s. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 as part of a US sting.
Paul Whelan, a former Marine who has been detained in Russia since 2018, was not released as part of the deal. Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 after being accused of being an American spy, a claim his family has said is untrue.
In his speech Thursday morning, Biden said the swap for Griner "was not a choice about which American to bring home."
"Sadly, 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."
Cherelle Griner said she and her wife “will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate BG being home."
"Today my family is whole, but as you all are aware, there are so many other families that are not whole," Cherelle Griner said.
Paul Whelan's brother, David Whelan, said in a statement to CBS News that he is "so glad" to hear of the release and that the family does "not begrudge Ms. Griner her freedom."
"The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen," he wrote.
Even so, the family is "devastated" and called on the US government "to be more assertive" in bringing home wrongfully imprisoned Americans. They do not know yet if Paul Whelan has heard the news, but said they "can't even fathom" how he will feel.
"His hopes had soared with the knowledge that the US government was taking concrete steps for once towards his release. He'd been worrying about where he'd live when he got back to the US," David Whelan wrote.
"And now what? How do you continue to survive, day after day, when you know that your government has failed twice to free you from a foreign prison?" he wrote. "I can't imagine he retains any hope that a government will negotiate his freedom at this point."