A plane believed to be carrying Brittney Griner landed in the United States early Friday, nearly 10 months after the basketball star was detained in Russia and became the most high-profile American jailed abroad.
Griner was exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout. A plane believed to be carrying her touched down at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.
The deal achieved a top goal for US President Joe Biden — but failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.
Biden's authorization to release Bout, the Russian felon once nicknamed "the Merchant of Death," underscored the heightened urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
Griner, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at an airport there after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be "wrongfully detained" — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.
Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, Baylor University All-American and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, injected racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi and Bout had been flown home.
Biden spoke by phone with Griner. U.S. officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counseling.
In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world's most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the U.S. in 2010.
Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.
Following Griner's arrest at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport in February, she pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia's judicial system does not automatically end a case.
She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent and she accidentally packed them. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.