A video grab taken from footage shown by Russian state media shows US basketball star Brittney Griner sitting on a plane after being released from prison
San Antonio (AFP) - American basketball star Brittney Griner was taken to a US Army base in Texas for a medical checkup on Friday after being released from a Russian prison in exchange for a notorious arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.”
Griner, who was arrested in Russia in February on drug charges, arrived overnight in San Antonio from Abu Dhabi, where the prisoner swap took place, and did not make any public statements.
Robert Whetstone, a spokesman for the Brooke Army Medical Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, said the 32-year-old Griner, who is from Texas, was taken to the facility “as is standard protocol.”
A video grab taken from footage shown by Russian state media shows US basketball star Brittney Griner (L, in red) during a swap at Abu Dhabi airport for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout (2nd from right)
“The US government is focused on ensuring that Brittney Griner and her family’s well-being are prioritized and that all assistance available be offered in an appropriate manner,” Whetstone said.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby told NBC that Griner was in “very good spirits when she got off the plane and appeared to be obviously in good health.”
Kirby said she would be given “all the access she needs to health care workers just to make sure that she is OK.”
Griner was exchanged in Abu Dhabi on Thursday for Viktor Bout, a 55-year-old Russian national who was serving a 25-year sentence in a US prison.
A sign reading 'We are BG 42' hangs on the facade of the Footprint Center where WNBA star Brittney Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury in Phoenix, Arizona
In footage released by Russian state media, Griner, shorn of her distinctive dreadlocks, and a relaxed and animated Bout crossed paths on the airport tarmac and headed towards the planes that would take them home.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA champion and LGBTQ trailblazer, was arrested at a Moscow airport against a backdrop of soaring tensions over Ukraine.
- Putin says ‘compromises’ found -
This video grab taken from footage released by Russian state television broadcaster VGTRK shows convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout speaking on the telephone after his release
Griner was accused of possessing vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil and sentenced in August to nine years in prison.
Bout, who was accused of arming rebels in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, was detained in a US sting operation in Thailand in 2008, sent to the United States and sentenced in 2012 to 25 years behind bars.
Bout told Kremlin-run media on Friday that Western countries were seeking to “destroy” Russia.
“The West believes that they did not finish us off in 1990, when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate,” Bout told state-run channel RT. “They think that they can just destroy us again and divide Russia.”
While Griner’s family and friends celebrated her release, another American held in Russia, former US Marine Paul Whelan, detained since 2018 and accused of spying, expressed disappointment he was not part of the swap.
Brittney Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested at a Moscow airport nine months ago against a backdrop of soaring tensions over Ukraine
The Griner family expressed solidarity with Whelan, saying in a statement: “We pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans.”
Russia President Vladimir Putin said Friday that other prisoner swaps with Washington were possible.
“This is the result of negotiations and the search for compromises,” Putin said. “In this case, compromises were found and we aren’t refusing to continue this work in the future.”
- ‘Joy and relief’ -
Cherelle Griner, the wife of US basketball star Brittney Griner, speaks to reporters after President Joe Biden announced Griner's release from Russian custody
President Joe Biden announced Griner’s release on Thursday flanked by her wife, Cherelle Griner, and thanked the UAE for helping “facilitate” it.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said there was a “collective wave of joy and relief” in the women’s professional league where Griner has been a star for a decade with the Phoenix Mercury.
At the time of her arrest, Griner had been playing for a professional team in Russia, as a number of WNBA players do in the off-season.
She pleaded guilty to the charges against her, but said she did not intend to break the law or use the banned substance in Russia.
Griner testified that she had permission from a US doctor to use medicinal cannabis to relieve pain from her many injuries.
The use of medical marijuana is not allowed in Russia.
The 2005 film “Lord of War” starring Nicolas Cage was based in part on Bout’s arms trafficking exploits, and he has been the subject of several books and TV shows.
Speaking to MSNBC, Kirby acknowledged concerns Bout could return to criminal activity.
“We’re going to make sure now that he’s a free man that we’re looking after our national security interests and we’re as vigilant as we can be,” he said.