“She’s on the ground.” With those words, President Joe Biden told Cherelle Griner that her wife, WNBA star Brittney Griner, was on her way home after a prisoner exchange in Abu Dhabi on December 9. Griner spent more than nine months being held prisoner in Russia. In moments of sheer joy captured on video, Cherelle Griner embraced the President and First Lady Jill Biden in what should go down in history as one of the most emotionally moving moments of 2022.
“It’s just such a good day,” Cherelle Griner said, beaming as she sat beside Biden, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Vice President Kamala Harris standing nearby.
About the Exchange
On December 8, the Biden Administration orchestrated the prisoner swap. In return for Griner, it gave the Russian government charge of Viktor Bout, the notorious arms dealer and ex-Soviet army lieutenant with the sobriquet the “Merchant of Death.” The United States spent months negotiating for Griner’s release, always with Bout, who was about halfway through serving a 25-year sentence, as her likely counterpart.
Announcing Griner’s release in an address to the American people on December 8, Biden noted that she was safe and in “good spirits” after the months of “needless trauma” inflicted on her by the Russian government. Her wife and family, and certainly her millions of fans and supporters, had worked toward and hoped for her release after her arrest on February 17.
About Griner’s Detention
It was only a week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Griner, an all-star center with the Phoenix Mercury and an Olympic gold medalist, was arriving at a Moscow airport, as she often has. Russian officials detained her, alleging that she was smuggling an illegal substance described as cannabis oil contained inside vape cartridges. Griner was in Russia for work. Because WNBA players are compensated at a rate far below that of NBA players, many female players work the European circuit during the off-season. Griner has played off-season with the UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2014.
At her hearing in July, her attorneys told judges that the cannabis oil had been prescribed by a doctor for chronic pain, and that she had not intended to break any laws. But Griner pleaded guilty to the charges anyway. Experts have said that the guilty plea, and thus her conviction, was likely the only way to move along negotiations toward a prisoner swap.
Griner’s Transfer to a Penal Colony
After months of detention under brutal and humiliating conditions, her nine-year sentence led to her transfer to an even more brutal penal colony. For Griner, a non-Russian speaker who stands out for her very identity as a Black, American, gay woman who physically towers above most people, the experience also had to be traumatic because of the isolation she experienced. At one point early in her detention, her jailers transported her on the five-hour round trip to and from the courtroom in a cage so small she had to scrunch up her knees.
On October 6, Cherelle Griner told news media that, in only the second call Russia had permitted her to have with Brittney, she heard things that deeply worried her. In their first phone conversation, months before, Brittney Griner had told her wife she’d be fine and would get through what she needed to. But that second conversation caused Cherelle to cry for “two, three days straight.”
“You could hear that she was not okay,” Cherelle said of the “most disturbing” call she’d ever experienced. In that conversation, she said Brittney told her, “‘My life just don’t even matter no more.’”
About Paul Weeden, the Prisoner Left Behind
Despite the widely reported mistreatment Griner suffered in Russian captivity, there were of course naysayers upon her release. Republican politicians said the swap of a basketball star for a convicted arms dealer was disproportionate. They argued that Biden should have done more to at least secure the release of another American captive, Paul Whelan.
Whelan and Griner had often been proposed as a package deal in exchange for Bout. But Biden seized the opportunity to bring one American home, even if it was ultimately unable to bring home two. Whelan, also held under excruciating conditions in a maximum-security penal colony, is accused of espionage, a charge he vehemently denies. That makes his case infinitely more complicated than Griner’s, experts say.
Biden said that when the chance to free Griner alone emerged, it would have been wrong not to take it. He spoke to Whelan’s family beforehand, to prepare them for the news. David Whelan, Paul Whelan’s brother, spoke for the family when he said they were deeply disappointed, but that they did not fault the Biden Administration for taking “the deal that was possible.” Whelan’s and Griner’s families have expressed mutual support throughout their common ordeal.
Biden said, “We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” and that negotiations for his release will continue.
About Griner’s Homecoming
For Griner and her family, the pain, the agonizing wait, the terror for her safety, have all come to an end. On Friday night, December 9, she was with her wife in her home state of Texas for a medical evaluation. That’s something that can and should unite Americans and lift spirits across political divides. An American captive has come home.