(BBC News) The U.S. and Russia have exchanged jailed U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, held in a U.S. prison for 12 years.
President Joe Biden said Griner was safe and on a plane home from the United Arab Emirates.
“I’m glad to say Brittney’s in good spirits… she needs time and space to recover,” he said at the White House.
Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February for possessing cannabis oil and last month sent to a penal colony.
The Biden administration proposed a prisoner exchange last July, aware Moscow had long sought Bout’s release.
The elaborate swap involved two private planes bringing the pair to Abu Dhabi airport from Moscow and Washington, respectively, and then flying them home. According to Politico website, they walked past each other on the airport tarmac.
“The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement, although he was not yet thought to have arrived on Russian soil.
Russian news agencies said he was still being flown to Vnukovo airport near Moscow.
Speaking in the Oval Office, Griner’s wife Cherelle praised the efforts of the Biden administration in securing her release: “I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions.” The ordeal had been one of the darkest moments of her life, she added.
A joint Saudi-UAE statement revealed that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had taken a leading role in mediation efforts, along with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
The heir to the Saudi throne has good relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and in September he helped co-ordinate a complex swap of hundreds of prisoners held by Russia and Ukraine.
When negotiations began to secure Griner’s release during the summer, the U.S. made clear it wanted ex-marine Paul Whelan to be included in an exchange. But it became clear Whelan, jailed in 2018 on suspicion of spying, would not be part of the Russian swap, dashing the hopes of his family.
Russia’s foreign ministry appeared to allude to the disagreement, complaining in its statement that “Washington categorically refused to engage in dialogue on the inclusion of (Bout) in the exchange scheme.”
In the end, President Biden signed the order for Bout’s release, commuting his 25-year jail term, in a direct swap for Griner.
Bout’s wife Alla told Russian TV she had spoken to him only two days ago: “He was supposed to call me tonight. Now we’ll see each other and hug each other. That’s better than any phone call.”
Bout sold arms to warlords and rogue governments, becoming one of the world’s most wanted men.
Dubbed the “merchant of death” for gun-running in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian’s exploits inspired the 2005 Hollywood film Lord of War, which was loosely based on his life.
His secretive career was brought to an end by an elaborate U.S. sting in 2008, when he was arrested at a hotel in the Thai capital Bangkok, to the anger of the Russian government.
He was extradited two years later and has spent the past 12 years languishing in an American jail for conspiring to support terrorists and kill U.S. citizens.
Bout’s circumstances could hardly be more different from that of his opposite number in the prisoner swap.
Brittney Griner, 32, is one of the best-known sportswomen in America. During the U.S. basketball season, the two-time Olympic champion is a star centre for Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA.
Her reason for flying to Moscow was to play in Russia during the U.S. off-season. She said at her Russian trial that the cannabis oil found in her bag had been an “honest mistake.”
In his tweet, President Biden posted a picture from the Oval Office alongside Griner’s wife Cherelle.
“Moments ago, I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” he wrote. Shortly afterward, they both spoke publicly in statements carried live on U.S. TV networks.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken singled out the efforts of presidential envoy Roger Carstens, who was accompanying Griner on the plane from the UAE.
Griner was moved last month to a penal colony in Mordovia, a remote area some 500 km southeast of Moscow. She had been held not far from where Whelan is serving his 16-year jail term on spying charges he denied.
In his statement, Biden said Russia had treated Whelan’s case differently from Griner’s for illegitimate reasons. “While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we have not given up; we will not give up,” he said.
Whelan’s brother David praised Griner’s release and said U.S. officials had warned the family in advance that Paul was not part of the exchange.
“It’s clear the U.S. government needs to be more assertive,” he said in a statement. “If bad actors like Russia are going to grab innocent Americans, the U.S. needs a swifter, more direct response.”
Thursday’s prisoner exchange is not the first between Russia and the U.S. this year. U.S. marine Trevor Reed spent three years in jail for assault before being traded last April for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted of smuggling cocaine.
Biden urged Americans to take precautions before travelling overseas, and warned of the risk of being wrongfully detained by a foreign government.