UPDATED: 8:20 a.m. ET, Dec. 8, 2022
Originally published on Oct. 11
Brittney Griner is free!
The WNBA star was released and will be sent back to the U.S. as part of an international prisoner swap with Russia, CBS News reported on Thursday morning. Griner’s release following her questionable conviction for drug smuggling ends a horrific ordeal that lasted for about 10 months.
Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who was held for months in Russian prisons on drug charges, was released Thursday in a one-for-one prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to a U.S. official. The one-for-one exchange agreement negotiated with Moscow in recent weeks was given final approval by President Biden within just the last week, according to sources familiar with the deal. The swap, first reported by CBS News, took place on Thursday in the United Arab Emirates.
Prior to Thursday’s surprise announcement, Griner had begun serving a prison sentence in Mordovia, which is known as Russia’s “land of prisons.”
Russia’s penal colony in Mordovia is infamous for its harsh and horrific conditions.
According to The Nation’s Dave Zirin, the colony is notorious for racism and homophobia towards inmates, and Griner’s time there could be brutal.
Musician and activist, Nadya Tolokonnikova spent two years in Mordovia. During an interview with MSNBC, her description of the camp was horrific. “Beatings and torture are common,” she said.
Inmates also were required to sew police army and guard uniforms and were hardly given medical care.
Some international observers even questioned if Griner would get a bed that can fit her six-foot-eight-inch frame.
The jailed basketball star was transferred to a Russian penal colony about 300 miles southeast of Moscow. According to her lawyers, on Thursday Griner was moved to Female Penal Colony IK-2 in the town of Yavas and ensured her loved ones that she is staying positive.
“We can confirm that Brittney began serving her sentence at IK-2 in Mordovia. We visited her early this week,” her lawyers told Reuters in a statement. “Brittney is doing as well as could be expected and trying to stay strong as she adapts to a new environment.”
Griner was moved to a Russian labor camp a week after her appeal was denied in a Russian court.
According to ESPN, Griner’s legal team in Russia announced last week that she would be transferred to a Russian penal colony where she will be required to work, but her location was unknown.
Russian penal colonies have been known for their harsh conditions. According to Vice, remote facilities are notorious for their poor treatment of prisoners. Her move has raised many concerns among her family and friends as they worry about Griner’s mental and physical well-being.
“Our primary concern continues to be BG’s health and well-being,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, told CNN. “As we work through this very difficult phase of not knowing exactly where BG is or how she is doing, we ask for the public’s support in continuing to write letters and express their love and care for her.”
On Nov. 3. U.S. officials finally met with Griner in Russia. According to the State Department, U.S. Embassy officials in Russia visited Griner to check on her physical and mental well-being. They also hope to maintain constant communication with Russian officials to continue to push for her release. U.S. officials also said that even though Griner’s situation is dire, they “saw firsthand her tenacity and perseverance despite her present circumstances.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters while traveling on Air Force One that Griner “is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances.” She also told reporters that getting Brittney Griner home remains a “top priority” for the Biden administration.
U.S. officials in Moscow said they hoped to continue meeting with Griner throughout her imprisonment and continue to aid her in her goal of being released.
Last month, Russia denied Brittney Griner’s appeal over her nine-year prison sentence in a drug smuggling case that dashes hopes of the WNBA star’s release anytime soon.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan blasted the ruling as a “sham” and pledged the U.S. government would continue working hard to bring Griner home.
“We are aware of the news out of Russia that Brittney Griner will continue to be wrongfully detained under intolerable circumstances after having to undergo another sham judicial proceeding today. President Biden has been very clear that Brittney should be released immediately,” Sullivan said in a statement emailed to NewsOne Tuesday morning.
“In recent weeks, the Biden-Harris Administration has continued to engage with Russia through every available channel and make every effort to bring home Brittney as well as to support and advocate for other Americans detained in Russia, including fellow wrongful detainee Paul Whelan. The President has demonstrated that he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home, as his Administration has done successfully from countries around the world. The Administration remains in regular touch with representatives of the families, and we continue to admire their courage in the face of these unimaginable circumstances.”
The appeal hearing came two weeks after a top U.S. diplomat expressed hope about getting Griner and another U.S. citizen jailed in Russia released before 2023.
Former Gov. Bill Richardson told CNN in October that he was “cautiously optimistic” that Griner and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Paul Whelan could be home by next year. Richardson’s organization, which is named after the former governor, has been working behind the scenes on negotiations to release the U.S. prisoners detained in Russia.
During the interview, Richardson said he is working with the White House and the families of Griner and Whelan and is hoping to get them home before the end of the year.
“I know (the families are) very emotional and this is a very emotional time,” Richardson said at the time. “All I can say is that the Biden administration is working hard on it. So am I. We coordinate but don’t always agree on every tactical decision. But I’m not going to interfere in their process. I’m just giving you my assessment after two visits to Russia on behalf of American hostages.”
Brittney’s wife, Cherelle Griner, recently sat down with Gayle King during a segment of “CBS Mornings” earlier this month and talked about how traumatic this situation has been for their family. She also expressed her hopes that Brittney would be released before Tuesday’s appeal hearing. Cherelle fears that Brittney could be transferred to another facility after the hearing.
“Once that hearing is held, and the order is finalized, B.G.’s now in the position where she could be moved to a labor camp,” Cherelle told King. “My brain can’t even fathom it.”
Cherelle also mentioned her wife’s mental health was taking a serious hit.
“I don’t know if she has anything left in her tank to continue to wake up every day and be in a place where she has no one,” Cherele said.
Griner was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport on Feb. 17 for bringing cannabis oil into the country. On Aug. 4, she was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. During her emotional apology, Griner pleaded with the court official for leniency, noting how the move was an “honest mistake,” due to packing in a hurry.
President Joe Biden met with the family members of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan at the White House last month to reassure them they were working around the clock on the matter.
Though the White House has been tight-lipped about its negotiations with Russia, they say they remain committed to getting the U.S. prisoners home.
“We all admire the courage of the Whelan and Griner families in the face of these unimaginable circumstances, and we remain committed to reuniting them with their loved ones,” said Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
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