United States basketball star Brittney Griner, who was released from detention in Russia last week, has said she will be back on the court with her Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) team next season.
In her first public remarks since she returned to the US after a prisoner exchange between Moscow and Washington, Griner confirmed in an Instagram post on Friday that she is “home” after undergoing check-ups at a military medical centre in Texas.
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The two-time Olympic gold medallist also expressed gratitude to a long list of supporters who advocated for her release, including her wife Cherelle Griner, the WNBA and US President Joe Biden.
“I also want to make one thing very clear: I intend to play basketball for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury this season, and in doing so, I look forward to being able to say ‘thank you’ to those of you who advocated, wrote, and posted for me in person soon,” Griner wrote.
Griner was freed from a penal colony in Russia on December 8 in a prisoner swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence in a US prison.
The WNBA all-star spent nearly 10 months in Russian jail, as her family, other athletes and the US government pushed for her release.
Griner was arrested and sentenced to nine years in prison after Russian authorities found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport in February, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Early on, the Biden administration labelled Griner’s detention unjustified, and her lawyers said the sentence was excessive and did not match the severity of the offence. She had said in court that the cannabis oil cartridges, which are illegal in Russia, ended up in her bag by mistake.
Her release last week was widely welcomed in the US, but some Republican legislators criticised the Biden administration for failing to include Paul Whelan, a US Marine veteran sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison on espionage charges, in the swap deal.
Biden and his top aides stressed that they did not choose to free Griner and leave Whelan behind, but that the US administration could either free the basketball star alone, or bring neither of them home.
“The choice was in this instance one or none because, unfortunately, Russia has continued to see [Whelan’s] case through the lens of sham espionage charges, and they are treating him differently than they treated Brittney Griner,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week.
On Friday, Griner promised to push for the release of all Americans unjustly detained abroad, including Whelan.
“President Biden, you brought me home and I know you are committed to bringing Paul Whelan and all Americans home too,” she said in her Instagram post.
“I will use my platform to do whatever I can to help you. I also encourage everyone that played a part in bringing me home to continue their efforts to bring all Americans home. Every family deserves to be whole.”
The Phoenix Mercury will kick off their WNBA season in May of next year.