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

Washington (AFP) - American basketball star Brittney Griner was released from a Russian prison on Thursday in a swap for an arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death” after what President Joe Biden called “painstaking and intense” negotiations.

Griner, 32, who was arrested in Russia in February on drug charges, and Viktor Bout, 55, who was serving a 25-year sentence in a US prison, were exchanged at an airport in Abu Dhabi.

In footage released by Russian state media, Griner, shorn of her distinctive dreadlocks, and a relaxed and animated Bout could be seen crossing paths on the airport tarmac and heading towards the planes that would take them home.

Biden announced Griner’s release in an address to the nation at the White House. “She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” he said.

The president said he had spoken to her and she was in “good spirits” after suffering “needless trauma.”

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA champion and LGBT trailblazer, was arrested at a Moscow airport nine months ago against a backdrop of soaring tensions over Ukraine.

She was accused of possession of 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, extradited to the United States and sentenced in 2012 to 25 years behind bars.

Brittney Griner during a court hearing in Khimki outside Moscow

While Griner’s family and friends celebrated her release, another American held in Russia, Paul Whelan, a former US Marine detained in 2018 and accused of spying, was not part of Thursday’s exchange and he told CNN he was “greatly disappointed.”

“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” Whelan told the US television network in a phone call from the Russian penal colony where he is imprisoned.

Biden pledged to obtain Whelan’s freedom, saying “we will never give up.”

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case different than Brittney’s,” he said.

As for Griner’s release, Biden said “this is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. It took painstaking and intense negotiations.”

- ‘Family is whole’ -

Biden made the announcement flanked by Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions,” Cherelle Griner said.

Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout at a detention center in Thailand in March 2008

She also acknowledged Whelan’s fate, saying: “Today my family is whole, but as you all are aware there’s so many other families who are not whole.”

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said there was a “collective wave of joy and relief” in the women’s professional league where the 6’9” (2.06 meter) Griner has been a star for a decade with the Phoenix Mercury.

Biden thanked the United Arab Emirates for helping “facilitate” Griner’s release and the UAE issued a joint statement with Saudi Arabia saying it was the result of “mediation efforts” by leaders of the two Arab nations.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, however, there was “no mediation involved” and “the only countries that negotiated this deal were the United States and Russia.”

“We are grateful to the UAE… for facilitating the use of their territory for the exchange to take place,” Jean-Piere said, and to other countries such as Saudi Arabia for raising the issue of detained Americans with Russia.

- ‘Rescue our compatriot’ -

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.

Cherelle Griner, the wife of US basketball star Brittney Griner, speaks to reporters after President Joe Biden announced Griner's release from Russian custody

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 Russian foreign ministry said it had been negotiating with Washington to secure Bout’s release “for a long time” and that initially the United States had “refused dialogue” on including him in any swap.

“Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot,” it said. “The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland.”

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.

Asked about Bout’s release, a senior US defense official said “there is a concern that he would return to doing the same kind of work that he’s done in the past.”