Brittney Griner lands in the US after Russia prisoner exchange

The prisoner swap deal was reached in months of talks between Washington and Moscow.

Brittney Griner
Griner was sentenced in August to nine years in prison on charges of possessing and smuggling drugs [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

American basketball player Brittney Griner has landed in the United States after serving 10 months in a Russian prison.

Griner was exchanged for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who arrived in Moscow hours earlier on Friday.

The aircraft carrying Griner landed in San Antonio, Texas, TV footage showed. She was expected to be immediately taken to a military centre for a health examination.

Griner, a 32-year-old star centre for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, was arrested at a Russian airport in February and she later pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the discovery of cannabis-derived oil cartridges in her luggage.

She was sentenced on August 4 to nine years in prison on charges of possessing and smuggling drugs. Griner said she made an “honest mistake” and had not meant to break the law.

Griner is also a two-time Olympic gold medallist. Her status as an openly gay Black woman – locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LGBTQ community – injected racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga, and brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongfully held Americans.

Russian TV, meanwhile, showed Bout walking off a plane on a snow-covered tarmac, his mother and wife hugging him and giving him flowers.

Bout, a 55-year-old former Soviet army lieutenant colonel, was accused of arming rebel groups in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the US two years later.

‘Needless trauma’

The swap was a rare instance of cooperation between the US and Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. The two countries also traded prisoners in April when Russia released former US Marine Trevor Reed and the US released Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.

US President Joe Biden said on Thursday he had spoken to Griner and she was in “good spirits” after suffering “needless trauma”.

The deal achieved a top goal for Biden — but failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years accused of spying.

Whelan said on Thursday he was “greatly disappointed”.

“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he told CNN in a phone call from a Russian penal colony.

Biden pledged to obtain Whelan’s freedom, saying “we will never give up”.

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case different than Brittney’s,” he said.

Carly Givens of Phoenix shows support for Brittney Griner [Rick Scuteri/AP Photo]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies