In a high-level prisoner exchange, WNBA star Brittney Griner was freed by Russia on Thursday and the U.S. released Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, reports Associated Press. During heightened tensions over Ukraine, the swap was a major goal for President Biden, but it carried a heavy price and left behind another American jailed for nearly four years in Russia who advocates also had hoped to bring home. Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. 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 the canisters, but said she had no criminal intent and blamed their appearance on hasty packing. The months-long imprisonment of Griner, the two-time Olympic gold medalist, 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 that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
The deal for a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that U.S. officials had expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless. 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. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, 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. The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. 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 and made each development a matter of international importance.