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WNBA star Brittney Griner back in U.S. following high-profile Russia jailing, prisoner swap

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Brittney Griner disembarked from a plane in Texas early Friday, nearly 10 months after the basketball star was detained in Russia and became the most high-profile American jailed abroad.

Griner was exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout. The plane carrying her touched down at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

The deal achieved a top goal for U.S. President Joe Biden — but failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.

Biden’s authorization to release Bout, the Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” underscored the heightened urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

Griner, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at an airport there after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. Before her conviction, the U.S. State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.

Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medallist and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, injected racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga.

U.S. officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counselling.

In this image taken from video, Russian citizen Viktor Bout has his blood pressure taken while at the airport of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. He has since arrived in Russia. (RU-24 Russian Television/The Associated Press)

Bout had been in custody for nearly 15 years

Following Griner’s arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, she pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.

She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent and she accidentally packed them. Her defence team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.

In releasing Bout, the U.S. freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the U.S. in 2010.

Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that U.S officials said were to be used against Americans.

WATCH | U.S. Secretary of State explain rationale for decision:

‘The choice was one or none,’ say Blinken on Griner-Bout swap

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre both stated that there was never an option to include Paul Whelan with Brittney Griner when discussing the prisoner swap with Russia.

Bout was back home in Russia on Friday, his wife confirmed to Reuters.

U.S. officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the person-for-person exchange was the only deal on the table, leaving Michigan resident Paul Whelan still imprisoned in Russia. The Ottawa-born Whelan, who holds American, Canadian and Irish citizenship, was convicted on espionage charges he denies.

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