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Brittney Griner was released today from Russian custody after President Vladimir Putin's government reached a deal with the United States that included a prisoner swap. While one family is sure to experience immense relief, a second family remains hopeful to soon be reunited with a loved one detained in Russia.
After nearly 10 months in captivity as a geopolitical prisoner in Russia, the 32-year-old WNBA player was released from Russian custody and flown to the United Arab Emirates when the Biden administration announced her release.
Griner was arrested and charged in Russia in February for having a vape cartridge in her luggage with less than 1 gram of cannabis-derived oil. The center for the Phoenix Mercury was in Russia to play for a team there during the WNBA off-season. The Russian government initiated a sham investigation into the potential of Griner's role in the widespread distribution of drugs, and a subsequent show trial left Griner declared guilty and sentenced to nine years of detention in a notorious gulag-type Russian prison colony.
Despite her pleas for mercy and appeals from the United States government, the Russian judicial system was unimpressed, and as recently as November, her appeals were denied. Griner was made to disappear as part of the punishment process that begins with a transfer to a prison colony.
Four types of prison colonies exist in Russia, each with its distinct incarceration practices. In colony settlements, prisoners can move around, live in large barracks, leave on passes, visit family, and dress as civilians. Most of their inmates have served a significant portion of their sentences, so they are generally the least strict prisons.
Prison colonies under the ordinary regime are highly supervised by their guards. Inmates are housed in large barracks with a maximum of 100 beds. They are constantly monitored and cannot move about freely. Inmates living in strict or special prison colonies are usually restricted; they typically live in locked cells with up to 50 others.
Griner's lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, informed The Advocate in a statement on November 17 that she had been taken to IK-2 in Mordovia, about 300 miles from Moscow, after the attorneys went two weeks without any knowledge of where she was. There is a history of abuse of prisoners at IK-2, which is classified as an ordinary regime security facility.
News of Griner's release could not have come at a better time for her wife and family.
"Over the last nine months, you all have been so privy to one of the darkest moments of my life," Cherelle Griner said during an appearance alongside President Joe Biden in the White House Roosevelt Room.
Cherelle, Brittney's wife, said she was "overwhelmed with emotions, but the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration. Today my family is whole, but as you are all aware, there are so many families who are not whole."
She added that it was of utmost importance (and thus a cause to which the couple is dedicated) to "getting every American home, including Paul [Whelan], whose family is in our hearts today." Whelan was convicted on espionage charges, which he says are bogus.
Some Biden administration critics decried the President for not securing Whelan's release alongside Griner's in exchange for the prisoner Russia had demanded back. However, Biden said, "This was not a choice about which American we bring home."
Instead, he said, "Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's," Biden said. Biden displayed his famous empathy when he acknowledged the mixed emotions Whelan's family must be experiencing.
"My thoughts and prayers are with them today," Biden said of the family. "They have to have such mixed emotions today. And we'll keep negotiating in good faith for Paul's release. I guarantee that. I say that to the family. I guarantee you."
However, Biden administration officials explained that in the negotiations, it became clear that Russia had made a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum. As a result, the U.S. could trade a convicted Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the U.S. for nearly 15 years for Griner or nobody at all.
The administration ultimately chose one rescue over zero, and through communication with Whelan's family, diplomats received a kind of endorsement from Whelan's relatives.
"I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home," David Whelan, Paul's brother, wrote in a statement. "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."
He noted that months of negotiations between the United States and Russia led to Griner's release through a prisoner exchange in the United Arab Emirates, and said, "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."
As Biden indicated in a tweet, Griner was on the way home to the U.S. on Thursday.
\u201cMoments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner.\n \nShe is safe.\nShe is on a plane.\nShe is on her way home.\u201d— President Biden (@President Biden) 1670505284
Russia exchanged the athlete's freedom for the release of Viktor Bout, a former arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.
He was found guilty in April 2012 of conspiring to kill Americans, acquiring and exporting anti-aircraft missiles, and aiding terrorism.