President Joe Biden held a Thursday morning press conference moments after news broke that Russia released Brittney Griner — WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist who was sentenced to nine years in Russian prison on drug possession and smuggling charges — in a one-to-one swap with international arms dealer Viktor Bout.
“We never forgot about Brittney,” the President said. “We never forgot about Paul Whelan.”
Although the Biden administration was successful in brokering a deal with Russia to swap Griner for Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the “Merchant of Death.” The administration was unable to include Paul Whelan in the deal after Secretary of State Antony Blinken said they were in talks to free Whelan along with Griner.
The administration said Whelan, a corporate security executive and former marine from Michigan, who was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in Russian prison on espionage charges, prison release was a much different situation in comparison to Griner’s.
“For a totally illegitimate reason, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently,” Biden said. “We’ve remained in close touch with Paul’s family and we’ll keep negotiating on Paul’s release.”
Biden went on to address Russian officials, urging them to keep Whelan safe up until a potential release agreement.
Related Story — Sen. Lankford to Newsmax: Biden Upped Ante for Prisoner Swaps
Griner’s Russia 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.
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 — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.
The WNBA superstar’s wife, Cherelle, joined the President at his podium on Thursday to give her thanks to the people who helped bring her loved one home safely.
“For the last nine months, you have been so privy to one of the darkest moments of any life,” Cherelle Griner said. “I have sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration.”
Cherelle Griner thanked Brittney’s team, the Phoenix Mercury, the Women’s National Basketball Players Association and Brittney’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, for their continued support and advocacy during her Russian containment.
“Today my family is whole, but as you all are aware, there’s so many other families who are not whole,” Cherelle said. “BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul whose family is in our hearts today.”
Since assuming office in 2021, the Biden administration has brought home dozens of Americans who were wrongfully detained abroad.
“Reuniting Americans with their loved ones continues to be a priority,” the President said. “We strongly urge all Americans to take precautions including reviewing foreign policies before traveling overseas.”
©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit masslive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.