Brittney Griner’s friends and teammates hail basketballer’s release a ‘miracle’

Brittney Griner smiles as she stands behind while bars while attending a Russian court hearing

Brittney Griner’s friends, teammates and celebrities such as Billie Jean King and Hilary Clinton are among those celebrating the release of the WNBA star from a Russian penal colony.

President Joe Biden announced on Thursday (8 December) that Griner was free following her imprisonment in Russia after being convicted in August on drug charges and sentenced to nine years in prison. 

“She is safe, she is on a plane, she is on her way home,” Biden said in remarks from the White House.

“She will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.”

Biden described how the two-time Olympic gold medalist endured “hell” as she was held “under intolerable circumstances” and said it took “painstaking negotiations” to free Griner. 

Upon hearing the immensely good news, celebrities like queer tennis icon Billie Jean King, Hillary Clinton, Broadway legend Audra McDonald, Martin Luther King Jr’s daughter – alongside those who know, and have played with Griner, marked her long-awaited release.

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Brittney Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February after she was reportedly found with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. The WNBA star told the Russian court she made an “honest mistake” and “never meant to break any laws”.

Griner appealed her nine-year conviction, but it was rejected by the court. She was sent to a penal colony last month, enduring what has been reported as potentially gruelling living conditions

Speaking in the Oval Office, Griner’s wife Cherelle praised the efforts of the Biden administration in securing her release. Cherelle described being “overwhelmed with emotions” that Brittney Griner was safe and on her way back to the US. 

“So over 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, but the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for president Biden and his entire administration,” Cherelle said.

Brittney Griner's wife Cherelle stands at a podium as she speaks at the White House with president Joe Biden standing beside her
Cherelle Griner, wife of Olympian and WNBA player Brittney Griner, shares her joy that her wife has been released from a Russian penal colony during a White House speech. (Getty)

She said that her “family is whole” but wanted to remind others that there are “so many other families that are not whole”, referencing other Americans that remain in Russian detention including Paul Whelan. 

Whelan was arrested on alleged espionage charges in 2018 and sentenced to 16-years in prison. He has denied all the charges and is currently in a Russian penal colony.

His family and Cherelle met with president Biden in September to discuss how his administration could support the imprisoned Americans as well as potentially broker their freedom.

Cherelle vowed that she and Griner will “remain committed to the work of getting every American home” like Whelan. Biden added the US administration will “never give up” trying to secure Whelan’s release. 

President Joe Biden speaks at a podium at the White House to share the news that Brittney Griner was released from a Russian penal colony
President Joe Biden said the US administration will “never give up” trying to secure Paul Whelan’s release from Russia after brokering a prisoner exchange for Brittney Griner. (Getty)

Brittney Griner’s release came as part of a high-level prisoner swap in exchange for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to CNN.

Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” by his accusers, was serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US on charges of conspiring to kill Americans, acquire and export anti-aircraft missiles and prove matercal support to a terrorist group.

He has maintained his innocence. 

The Russian foreign ministry confirmed to state media that Griner was exchanged for Bout at an airport in Abu Dhabi, CNN reported. 

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