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WNBA star Brittney Griner steps off a plane in San Antonio, Texas, U.S. (CNN)

Brittney Griner back on U.S. soil

December 9, 2022
FILE: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury at practice and media availability during the 2021 WNBA Finals on October 11, 2021 at Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. (Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

(CNN) — Brittney Griner, the American basketball star detained by Russian authorities in February, has safely returned to the United States after being released from custody in a prisoner exchange.

US officials who met Griner on the ground Friday morning said she was “in good spirits and incredibly gracious,” one told CNN. A person who appeared to be Griner stepped off the plane shortly after 5:30 a.m. ET Friday at Kelly Field in San Antonio.

“So happy to have Brittney back on US soil. Welcome home BG!” tweeted Roger Carstens, a State Department official traveling with Griner, Friday morning.

One of her first stops is expected to be “at a treatment facility where she can get the medical care that she might need after 10 months in detention,” the National Security Council’s John Kirby told CNN on Thursday.

Griner’s release was secured after a prisoner swap between the US and Russia that involved international arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was arrested in 2008 in Thailand and extradited to the US in 2010.

The exchange was conducted Thursday in Abu Dhabi, senior Biden administration officials said. 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.

It 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.

President Joe 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, the 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 home 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.”

Russia would not negotiate Whelan’s return, US official says

While the safe return of Griner has been heralded by some as a diplomatic achievement, disappointment has been expressed by officials and supporters alike that Whelan was not able to return home.

Whelan, a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, 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.

The Russians signaled recently that they were only willing to negotiate for Griner and not Whelan, a US official said, because Russia said it has been handling their cases differently based on what each has been accused of.

The Biden administration repeatedly made offers to get Whelan released as part of this deal, even after Russia made clear only Griner was acceptable.

In the end, when it was clear Russia was going to refuse on Whelan, the US had to accept it.

“It was a choice to get Brittney or nothing,” the US official said, adding that was a “difficult decision” for Biden, but again, one he felt he had to make.

Biden acknowledged that Griner’s release was occurring while Whelan remained imprisoned, saying that Whelan’s family “have to have such mixed emotions today.”

“This was not a choice of which American to bring home,” Biden said. “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.”

In a statement, Griner’s family said, “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.”

Whelan family worries for what’s ahead

Whelan told CNN in an exclusive phone call from the penal colony where is being held in a remote part of Russia that he was “disappointed” the Biden administration has not done more to secure his release. Whelan said he was happy that Griner was released, but that he “was led to believe that things were moving in the right direction, and that the governments were negotiating and that something would happen fairly soon.”

“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said.

Whelan had been carrying out his sentence at a labor camp in Mordovia, an eight-hour drive from Moscow, where he told CNN in June 2021 he spent his days working in a clothing factory that he called a “sweatshop.”

The Biden administration has ideas about “new forms of offers” they are going to try with the Russians in an effort to secure Whelan’s release, a senior administration official told CNN on Thursday.

The official said there is a recognition that the US needs to make available “something more, something different” from what they have offered to the Russians thus far — and didn’t rule 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. “We have made clear to the Russians, that we at least are open to talking about that which is at our disposal, that which we could actually deliver. It would be somebody in our custody.”

Richardson said he hopes Whelan will be returned home by the end of the year.

“We have tried, my foundation, for four years to get Whelan out and somehow it always falls short. … Possibly because of the espionage charge, because he’s a Marine, he’s wrongfully detained, the Russians hold on to him at the very end. And this is what happened again, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a possibility that we can get him out. I think we can,” Richardson told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

Whelan’s family expressed happiness at the news that Griner is on her way home but said Thursday they are “devastated” that he was left behind.

“It’s a great day for the families of the wrongfully detained and we feel wonderful for them,” David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said on “CNN This Morning.” “But we do worry about what’s in Paul’s future. I think it’s become clear that the US doesn’t have any concessions that the Russian government wants for Paul. So I’m not really sure what the future holds.”

The Biden administration told Whelan’s family ahead of the Griner announcement, David Whelan said.

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