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WNBA star Brittney Griner freed from Russian detention

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Nine months ago, basketball star Brittney Griner was arrested on drug charges in Russia. Today she is on her way home to the U.S. She was swapped for a Russian arms dealer who still had years to go on a U.S. prison sentence. President Biden made the announcement at the White House with Greiner's wife by his side.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones. And she should have been there all along.

CHANG: There has been an outpouring of joy over this news from Griner's fans and supporters. But the White House is still facing critical questions about the prisoner swap. I'm joined now by NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez and Moscow correspondent Charles Maynes. Hey to both of you.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: OK. So, Franco, I mean, this was a pretty dramatic moment this morning, but can we just back up? Tell us how this swap came to pass over many, many months, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. It was in agreement for many, many months - a lot of backroom negotiations between Washington and Moscow. In the end, it was a one-for-one prisoner swap. Griner, as you noted, was swapped for a convicted Russian arms trader, Viktor Bout, which was made at the Abu Dhabi airport in the United Arab Emirates today. Biden actually signed an order cutting short Bout's 25-year sentence. The White House invited Griner's wife Cherelle Griner to the White House for a meeting with the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. But when she arrived, she was directed to the Oval Office, where President Biden was there to tell her himself that Brittney Griner was coming home.

CHANG: And, Charles, how did news of this whole prisoner exchange break in Russia?

MAYNES: Well, we learned this in Moscow from Russia's foreign ministry, which issued a statement saying the trade had taken place after lengthy negotiations. Russian state TV later aired video from the security services here that showed a smiling Griner, hair now cropped short, signing her release papers, then leaving the prison colony in Mordovia to get on a plane. And there's even a bit where the FSB agents engage Griner on camera. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Do you know where you're heading to?

BRITTNEY GRINER: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No.

B GRINER: I don't know. I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You're flying back home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: To the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Everything will be fine.

CHANG: Everything will be fine. But, Charles, I mean, the U.S. has been pursuing this deal for months now, and Russia seemed to be holding out the whole time. What do you think changed here?

MAYNES: Well, you know, one of the reasons the Russian government has given all along is that Griner's legal proceedings needed to run their course before any trade could happen. So just last month Griner exhausted her appeals process and began formally serving out her nine-year prison term. Now, beyond the legal wrangling, there's little question Moscow enjoyed the political pressure building on the White House to get Griner home. But there's also a certain logic to the Russian position. You know, her conviction sent Griner to prison, but what it also did was open the door, legally speaking, for her to be pardoned because Griner had now been convicted of a crime.

CHANG: Exactly. OK. Well, this whole detention has been quite high-profile, in part because Griner is such an accomplished and well-known athlete. And there has been a lot of activism surrounding her detention. Franco, can you talk about that piece of this? Like, what was the reaction like to her release?

ORDOÑEZ: It's been really big and from so many different sectors of society. Former President Barack Obama said he was grateful for Griner's, quote, "long-overdue release." The Phoenix Mercury, which is Griner's basketball team, had had a regular count of the days that she was in detention. The team posted, no more days. She's coming home. And at the White House, Griner's wife Cherelle was visibly moved.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHERELLE GRINER: So for the last nine months, you all have been so privy to one of the darkest moments of my life. And so today I'm just standing here overwhelmed with emotions.

ORDOÑEZ: Biden acknowledged that there was a lot of pressure that he was under in, you know, different ways. Brittney Griner wrote him a letter this summer saying, quote, "I'm terrified I might be here forever." And as Charles pointed out, progress seemed to have stalled for a few months. But a few weeks ago, Biden said that he had hoped Putin would be more willing to discuss a prisoner exchange after the U.S. midterm elections were over.

CHANG: After the elections. OK. Well, Charles, you have followed Griner's case for months now. You've attended, like, every stage of her trial in Moscow. Can you just remind us of some of what you saw, what you heard during that time?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, this trial unfolded against the collapse in U.S.-Russian relations over the conflict in Ukraine. And it's a situation that made many feel Griner was a hostage to geopolitics rather than a defendant in a drug trial. You know, as to the proceedings, you know, they took place in a small courtroom with six-foot-nine Griner often in a cage. It was incredibly hot there. It was over the summer, You know, at one point, a U.S. embassy official nearly fainted from the heat. And yet I was struck by how Griner just handled herself throughout. You know, she was very calm given the circumstances. In fact, one of the few times I saw her grow openly emotional was when her Russian teammates and coach came to testify on Grinder's behalf. Despite her ordeal, despite everything, you know, there's clearly a lot of affection between them even now.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, tell us more about Viktor Bout, the man exchanged for Griner. Like, why did the Russians want him back so much?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Russia has wanted to shoot back ever since he was detained initially in Thailand in a U.S. sting operation in 2008. Bout has been colorfully labeled the Merchant of Death by the media.

CHANG: Right.

ORDOÑEZ: But, you know, his story is more complicated. I mean, he's a one-time Soviet military translator who started a global gunrunning business, arguably one of the world's most successful ones, providing arms to civil wars in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, even for the U.S. military operations in Iraq for a time. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a U.S. court in 2011 on narcoterrorism charges - in other words, trafficking weapons that could kill Americans, not that he necessarily did. Either way, Russia's government has always argued he was illegally extradited by the U.S. - to the U.S. Excuse me. And his case was an example of American judicial overreach. And his release will certainly be celebrated here as well.

CHANG: Well, Franco, I mean, there's also another U.S. prisoner who's still detained in Russia, Paul Whelan. The White House had made it clear for months - right? - like, that they wanted Whelan to be part of this trade. And I'm wondering. Did they say why Whelan wasn't included? And what have we heard from Whelan's family about this latest news?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Paul Whelan's brother David said in a statement that he was glad that Griner was on her way home but that it was also a disappointment for the family and a, quote, "catastrophe" for Paul. They were thankful, though, that U.S. officials warned them in advance and did note that the Biden administration made the right decision, in their words, to make the deal that was possible rather than waiting for one that wasn't going to happen.

CHANG: That was NPR's Franco Ordoñez and Charles Maynes. Thank you to both of you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

MAYNES: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.