U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, who had been detained in Russia since February, has been released as part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and the U.S., the Biden administration announced on Thursday.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA champion, had traveled to Russia for years during the WNBA’s off-season to play for a Russian team. She was detained by Russian authorities earlier this year after 0.7 ounces of cannabis oil were found in her luggage, which she explained during her trial had been left there by accident.
Griner was sentenced by a Russian court to nine years imprisonment, and was sent to a prison work camp last month.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that Griner had been released from Russia and was heading back to the U.S. Her release was predicated on the exchange of a Russian prisoner, arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had served around 12 years of a 25-year prison sentence.
“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 from his official White House Twitter account.
In comments he made at the White House, Biden indicated that Griner was already out of Russia, on a plane departing for the U.S. from the United Arab Emirates.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, praised the Biden administration for its role in freeing her. “I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions,” she said.
Biden acknowledged that the exchange for another American prisoner in Russia, Paul Whelan, could not be negotiated at this time, with White House officials telling CNN that Moscow wouldn’t budge on his release.
“While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up,” Biden said. “We will never give up.”
Whelan’s family said they were “devastated” that he couldn’t be included in the deal but expressed happiness that Griner had been released. His family added that the Biden administration made “the right decision” in facilitating the exchange for Griner’s freedom.
Several right-wing commentators have attacked Griner’s character throughout her ordeal in Russia, deriding her advocacy to highlight police brutality against Black people in the United States.
Those attacks continued on Thursday. Donald Trump Jr., for example, disparaged news of Griner’s release, describing her as an “America hating WNBA activist” on Thursday morning.
Other far right media have condemned actions by the Biden administration throughout the year as officials tried to facilitate Griner’s release. “Under no circumstances should the Democratic Party’s identity politics allow a black lesbian millionaire athlete who broke the law in a foreign country to receive preferential treatment,” The Washington Free Beacon’s editorial board wrote this past summer.
Several activists and commentators in support of the WNBA star have recognized the attacks against Griner for what they are: politically motivated statements rooted in racism, sexism and homophobia. Likely because of her race, both Russia and the U.S. played a role in the length of her detention, some have said, noting that a white woman who was arrested in Russia under the same circumstances in 2019 was released after just two months.
“Russia is using Brittney Griner because she’s a Black woman and the reason it’s not a bigger story in the media in America is because she’s a Black woman,” said activist and former Ohio state lawmaker Nina Turner in June.
In an op-ed for MSNBC earlier this year, freelance writer and illustrator Natalie Johnson noted that Griner likely went to Russia in the first place because female athletes in the U.S. get paid significantly less than their male counterparts. Her nearly-year-long detention was perhaps reflective of “the vulnerability that often comes with being a Black woman,” Johnson said.