WNBA star Brittney Griner released from Russian custody in prisoner swap

U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has been released in a prisoner swap with Russia and is now in U.S. custody, President Joe Biden said on Thursday.

The Russian foreign ministry said it traded Griner for Russian citizen Viktor Bout, a former arms dealer. The swap occurred at the Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates, Russia news agencies said.

“She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden said in a tweet.

FILE PHOTO: Tokyo 2020 Olympics – Basketball – Women – Quarterfinal – Australia v United States – August 4, 2021. Brittney Griner of the United States reacts REUTERS/Brian Snyder//File Photo

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone with Griner from the Oval Office, a U.S. official said, adding that the call included Griner’s wife, Cherelle. The White House released a photo of the telephone call.

Biden was set to make remarks at 8:30 a.m. (1330 GMT), the White House said.

Griner, 32, a star of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Mercury, was arrested on Feb. 17. Talks to secure her release were complicated by Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent deep souring of ties between Washington and Moscow.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Cherelle Griner speak on the phone with WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner after her release by Russia, in this White House handout photo taken in the Oval Office, as Vice President Kamala Harris and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken look on, at the White House in Washington, U.S. December 8, 2022. The White House/Handout via REUTERS

A two-time Olympic gold medallist, Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport when vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia, were found in her luggage.

She was sentenced on Aug. 4 to nine years in a penal colony on charges of possessing and smuggling drugs. She had pleaded guilty, but said she had made an “honest mistake” and had not meant to break the law.

Last month she was taken to a penal colony in the Russian region of Mordovia to serve her prison sentence.

Variously dubbed “the merchant of death” and “the sanctions buster” for his ability to get around arms embargoes, Bout, 55, was one of the world’s most wanted men before his arrest.

FILE PHOTO: Alleged arms smuggler Viktor Bout from Russia is escorted by a member of the special police unit as he arrives at a criminal court in Bangkok October 4, 2010. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

For almost two decades, Bout became the world’s most notorious arms dealer, selling weaponry to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia and South America. For experts on the Russian security services, Moscow’s lasting interest in Bout hint strongly at Russian intelligence ties.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose and Humeyra PamukWriting by Doina ChiacuEditing by Tim Ahmann, Chizu Nomiyama and Frances Kerry)