WASHINGTON — Brittney Griner, the American basketball star imprisoned in Russia, was released on Thursday after 10 months of captivity after President Biden agreed to a swap for Viktor Bout, an imprisoned Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” officials said.
Ms. Griner, an All-Star center with the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was serving a nine-year prison sentence that put her at the center of a fraught geopolitical showdown between Washington and Moscow. In February, she was stopped at an airport near Moscow after customs officials found two vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
Her case became an international cause because she was seen as a hostage held by President Vladimir V. Putin’s government as Russia was subjected to a broad swath of international sanctions in response to its invasion of Ukraine a week after her arrest. The Biden administration’s efforts to negotiate a prisoner swap with Russia for her and Paul Whelan, another American held prisoner, had stalled for months as she was sent to a penal colony outside Moscow.
Ms. Griner was described by one of her lawyers this fall as struggling emotionally and increasingly worried that she would not be freed. She was permitted outside once a day to walk for an hour in a small courtyard, according to her lawyer, and otherwise confined to a cramped cell with two cellmates. She slept on a specially elongated bed to accommodate her 6-foot-9 frame.
American officials met with her in the penal colony last month for the first time since a Russian court rejected her appeal and reported that she was doing “as well as can be expected,” as a White House spokeswoman put it at the time. Ms. Griner turned 32 while in custody and her family continued to press for her release.
Mr. Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who later worked as a corporate security executive, was arrested at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and convicted in June 2020 on espionage charges that the U.S. government says were manufactured. Administration officials sought his release as part of a package deal with Ms. Griner for Mr. Bout.
The trade for Mr. Bout gave Moscow back one of the most notorious arms dealers of modern times, earning the nickname “Merchant of Death” as he evaded capture for years. The 2005 film “Lord of War” starring Nicolas Cage was inspired by his escapades. He was convicted in 2011 by a New York jury on four counts that included conspiring to kill American citizens. Prosecutors said he had agreed to sell antiaircraft weapons to drug enforcement informants who were posing as arms buyers for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
In July, American officials expressed frustration publicly that their Russian counterparts were refusing to engage in what the officials called a “substantial offer” to secure her release in exchange for Mr. Bout. For months, American diplomats said that Mr. Putin seemed uninterested in even discussing the offer.
Earlier this month, a top Russian diplomat said publicly that the chance for a deal that would free Ms. Griner was increasing. But U.S. officials dismissed his comments, saying that they continued to be stonewalled by the Russians, who were not seriously negotiating a deal for Mr. Bout.
The swap may have been an effort by Mr. Putin’s government to divert attention from Russia’s flailing war efforts in Ukraine and the attention focused on President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was named Time magazine’s person of the year on Wednesday.
Ukrainian forces in recent days have struck Russian military bases inside Russian territory with long-range drones, an escalation in the conflict that may have rattled Moscow. A Russian artillery barrage on a market in the eastern Ukrainian town of Kurakhove on Wednesday killed at least 10, according to Ukrainian authorities.
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