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WNBA’s Griner Is Happy To Be Home After Prisoner Exchange

The American basketball star was traded for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout — but some were critical of the swap. 

American basketball player Brittney Griner was released from Russian captivity on Dec. 8, in a one-on-one prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been imprisoned in the U.S. for 14 years. 

The Phoenix Mercury star is reportedly “in good health” and will be “offered a wide range of support options,” a senior White House official said. Griner said was “happy” as she boarded the plane en route to the U.S. and her San Antonio, Texas, home.

White House National Security Council Communications Coordinator John Kirby told the American press that those traveling with Griner reported she was in “very, very good spirits.” Griner initially went to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio for a health evaluation.

Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner’s agent, told ESPN Griner’s first move on Sunday, Dec. 11, was to a Texas basketball court.

Brittney Griner exits a plane after landing at the JBSA-Kelly Field Annex runway on December 9, 2022 in San Antonio. She was released from a Russian prison in exchange for a notorious arms dealer. (SUZANNE CORDEIRO / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES) 

Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after cannabis-derived oil cartridges were found in her luggage, which are illegal in Russia. The star center later pled guilty to charges of drug smuggling. On August 4, she was sentenced to nine years in prison. 

But another American, retired U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, a corporate security director, has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges the U.S. claims are baseless. Roger Carstens, the U.S. government’s top hostage negotiator, said: “There’s always cards” to play in securing an offer for Whelan and said he spoke with the jailed American on Friday.

However, some Republicans were critical of the exchange, feeling both Americans should have been released for Bout, a former Soviet military translator who used his multiple companies to smuggle weapons from Eastern Europe to Africa and the Middle East since the fall of the Soviet Union. Bout earned the nicknames “Merchant of Death” and “Sanctions Buster.”

John Bolton, former national security adviser in the Trump administration, tweeted the swap was “an American surrender.” 

But Ambassador John Sullivan, who stepped down as the top U.S. diplomat in Moscow in September, said on “CBS Mornings” that talks to free Griner were “extremely difficult negotiations.” The Russians focused only on Griner in exchange for Bout. They wanted Vadim Krasikov in exchange for Whelan, a convicted assassin jailed in Germany who is not in U.S. custody.

U.S. WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on June 27, 2022. She was sentenced and ultimately spent 10 months imprisoned in Russia before arriving in the U.S on Dec. 9.  (Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES) 

“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” President Biden said Thursday. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s.”

Bout’s network allegedly delivered surface-to-air missiles to Kenya that were used in a failed strike on an Israeli airliner during the 2002 Mombasa terror attacks.

Bout also reportedly met with Hezbollah officials during the run-up to the 2006 Second Lebanon War. He was arrested in Thailand on terrorism charges in 2008, and later convicted by a federal jury in Manhattan of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles and providing aid to a terrorist organization, and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years imprisonment. 

A key player in the negotiations was Mickey Bergman, the vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement. Bergman serves as a conduit between the White House and the Kremlin. He worked to secure the release of Griner and is working for the release of Whelan.

Produced in association with Jewish News Syndicate.

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