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Brittney Griner freed from Russian prison in exchange for Viktor Bout | Russia

The US basketball star Brittney Griner has been freed from prison in Russia in a dramatic high-level prisoner swap for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who has been held in an American prison for 12 years.

The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for Joe Biden but carried a heavy price and left behind an American jailed for nearly four years.

Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been jailed since December 2018 on espionage charges his family and the US government say are baseless.

But the deal, the second such exchange in eight months, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad.

Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose months-long imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.

Biden’s authorization to release a Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” underscored the escalating pressure his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the resolution of her criminal case and her transfer to a penal colony.

The swap was confirmed by US officials before a White House announcement.

Russia’s foreign ministry confirmed to state media that Griner had been exchanged for Bout in a secret swap at an airport in Abu Dhabi.

The foreign ministry did not give any more details. Lawyers for Griner in Russia did not respond when asked to comment.

A lawyer for Whelan said he had not been approached. But, he added, these swaps were usually worked out behind the scenes by intelligence services.

“Lawyers aren’t usually approached with these questions,” he told the Guardian. “All these questions are decided by the security services secretly, and we and even the prisoners only find out at the end.”

In a statement, Whelan’s family said they welcomed the Griner exchange but were “devastated” Whelan was not freed.

Russian and US officials had conveyed cautious optimism after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November he was hopeful. A top Russian official said last week a deal was possible before year’s end. Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that US officials had for months expressed their their determination to bring home both Griner and Whelan.

Bout is a former Soviet lieutenant colonel who the US justice department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. Bout, who inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons US officials said were to be used against Americans.

But the detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case.

Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ+ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga.

Her case emerged as a major inflection point in US-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow – a call between the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov – in more than five months.

In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken revealed publicly in July that the US had made a “substantial proposal” for Griner and Whelan. People familiar with it said the US offered Bout.

Such a public overture drew a rebuke from the Russians and carried the risk of weakening the US government’s hand. But the announcement was meant to communicate that Biden was doing what he could and to pressure the Russians.

The release followed months of negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, and his top deputy, Mickey Bergman.

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Griner was arrested at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow in February when officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though still faced trial. She acknowledged in court she possessed the canisters but said she had no criminal intent and their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.

Before being sentenced on 4 August and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offense, Griner apologized “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them”. She added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”

In May, the US state department designated her as unlawfully detained. A separate trade, the marines veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in a cocaine-trafficking conspiracy, spurred hope of more exchanges.

Whelan has been held since December 2018. The US also classified him as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.

His brother, David Whelan, said: “I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home. As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays.

“There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home. The Biden administration made the right decision to bring Ms Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.

“This time, US government officials let us know in advance that Paul would be left behind, unlike last April … that early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul.

“I do not know if he is aware yet, although he will surely learn from Russian media. Our parents … will surely speak to him soon.”

Associated Press contributed reporting