By Travis Caldwell, Tina Burnside, Rosalina Nieves and Rosa Flores, CNN
For the first time in almost 300 days, Brittney Griner, the American basketball star detained by Russian authorities in February, will spend the night in a bed in her home country.
Griner was “in good spirits” and “incredibly gracious,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told CNN.
Texas Democratic congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee said on CNN Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a WNBA superstar, was able to call her father from the plane.
“They all want to see her and might even want to see her back here at home, but I know that was a happy phone reunion to hear his daughter’s voice,” Jackson Lee said.
Griner went to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, for a routine evaluation, a State Department official told CNN.
The facility will be a big change from the penal colony where her life was “grueling,” according to Jackson Lee, and according to one of her Russian lawyers, made more miserable by her unusual size.
Griner’s release was secured after a prisoner swap between the US and Russia, which involved international arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was arrested in 2008 in Thailand and extradited to the US in 2010.
Bout’s commutation was finalized only after US officials on Thursday saw Griner on the Abu Dhabi airport tarmac where the exchange happened, the White House said; President Joe Biden had signed Bout’s official commutation on December 2, the document posted on the Justice Department website shows.
A joint statement from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia said the Gulf countries played a role mediating the exchange between the US and Russia.
The exchange is not a sign of improvements in US-Russian relations, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Friday.
Griner’s arrest and conviction played out against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and added further attention to the plights of other Americans in Russian custody, including Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. Whelan’s release could not be secured in the latest prisoner swap, while Reed returned to the US in April after a nearly three-year ordeal.
The Biden administration will continue negotiating with Russia to secure Whelan’s release, it said Friday. Russians “have things they want in this world,” and Moscow knows ultimately the two sides will reach “a mutually acceptable arrangement if they keep talking to us,” a senior administration official told CNN.
Biden said efforts to bring Griner home took “painstaking and intense negotiations” as he thanked members of his administration who were involved.
“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release,” he said Thursday.
The final deal came together over 48 hours, senior US administration officials said, launching the process of moving Griner from the penal colony where she was serving a lengthy sentence. Biden gave final approval for the prisoner swap freeing Griner over the past week, an official familiar with the matter said.
Bout has returned to Russia, the Russian foreign ministry said Thursday. The prisoner exchange with Griner was “completed successfully at Abu Dhabi Airport” on Thursday, the ministry said.
Griner’s family thanked Biden and his administration Thursday in a statement, as well as former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, whose Richardson Center worked on behalf of the family to help secure Griner’s release. They also expressed gratitude for the outpouring of public support they’ve received.
“We sincerely thank you all for the kind words, thoughts and prayers — including Paul and the Whelan family who have been generous with their support for Brittney and our family during what we know is a heartbreaking time,” the statement said.
“We pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans.”
‘We will never give up’ on Whelan, Biden says
As Griner’s return is heralded as a diplomatic achievement, officials and supporters have expressed disappointment Whelan also couldn’t come home.
A US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, Whelan was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges he has vehemently denied. The US State Department has declared him wrongfully detained.
Russia has handled Whelan’s and Griner’s cases differently based on what each has been accused of, it has said, and signaled recently it only would negotiate over Griner, even as the Biden administration made offers to get Whelan released as part of this deal.
“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said Thursday. “Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
Whelan was happy Griner was released but “disappointed” the Biden administration has not done more to secure his release, he told CNN Thursday by phone from a penal colony in a remote part of Russia.
“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said.
The Biden administration has ideas about “new forms of offers” to try with the Russians to secure Whelan’s release, a senior administration official told CNN on Thursday. There is a recognition the US needs to make available “something more, something different” from what they have offered thus far, the official said, not ruling out offering a Russian spy in US custody in a potential prisoner swap.
“There is a willingness to pay even a very big price on the part of this president,” the official said.
Whelan’s family was happy Griner was headed home but “devastated” he was left behind, they said Thursday. The Biden administration told Whelan’s family of her release ahead of the Griner announcement, Paul’s brother David Whelan told CNN.
Scenes from Griner’s time in Russia released
Glimpses of Griner’s time in Russian custody emerged Friday via video released by RIA News Telegram.
A small card bearing Griner’s photo is zip-tied to a white metal bed frame in a what appears to be a bunk room, an undated video shows. There is no location given. The bed is covered by white sheets, one with a deep blue stripe, and is among five beds seen in the room with pink walls and sheer white curtains along four windows.
In another clip, Griner wears a short haircut — without her now-famous dreadlocks — while pushing along a food line a tray bearing two dishes, apparently from among dozens of small plates and bowls seen on open serving shelves. Griner then sits next to a woman at a small square table, raising a utensil to her mouth, a still image shows.
Next, in a different, bright room, Griner wears a dark headscarf while sitting across from a woman and writing with a pen on paper, the RIA News Telegram reel shows. Again in a headscarf, the US basketball star in another frame holds a phone and, after an exchange with a woman, raises her head and smiles.
In a final outdoor scene, Griner leans over a table to write on a paper while a woman wearing a hat with earflaps speaks, the video shows.
Griner’s Russian lawyer said she had cut her hair while in a penal colony to make life easier during the Russian winter. Maria Blagovolina, partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan and Dyakin, told ESPN — and confirmed to CNN — Griner had cut her hair nearly two weeks ago upon arrival at the prison. Griner had told her attorneys when she washed her hair she would get cold and would get a chill, Blagovolina said.
Most of the women in the penal colony worked during the day sewing uniforms, but Griner was unable to sit at a work table due to her height (she is 6-feet-9) and her hands were too large to manage the sewing. Instead, Griner carried fabric all day, her attorney said.
Phoenix Mercury owner hopes players won’t ‘have to go overseas’
Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA and is a six-time all-star and two-time defensive player of the year.
For years, she played in the offseason for a Russian women’s basketball team, until she was arrested on drug smuggling charges at an airport in the Moscow region in February.
Griner testified she had inadvertently packed the cannabis oil found in her luggage. She was sentenced to nine years in prison in early August and was moved to a penal colony in Mordovia in mid-November after losing her appeal.
On Friday, Phoenix Mercury President Vince Kozar addressed the issue of whether players should continue playing in certain countries during the WNBA offseason.
“The players have incredible agency with how they choose to make their livings and where they choose to play,” he said on CNN. “It’s fair to say that a lot of players, you know, have to consider their safety when they look at where they go to make their living overseas.”
“My goal is for no players to have to go overseas,” he said. “My goal is for players to be able to play here in the WNBA and make their living, and that’s what we here in Phoenix and 11 markets around the country are working for.”
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CNN’s Steve Almasy, Jay Croft, Zahra Ullah, Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood, Jeremy Herb, MJ Lee, Kevin Liptak, Abby Phillip, Michelle Krupa and Elizabeth Wolfe contributed to this report.