ADDS COMMENTS BY PRESIDENT BIDEN, CHERELLE GRINER IN GRAFS 7-11
By Elena Teslova, Burc Eruygur, and Michael Hernandez
MOSCOW/ISTANBUL/WASHINGTON (AA) - In a high-profile prisoner swap, US WNBA star Brittney Griner has been freed in exchange for a Russian national who was incarcerated in the US, Russia said Thursday.
"Russian citizen Viktor Bout was exchanged for basketball player (Brittney) Griner at Abu Dhabi airport and returned to his homeland," said a Foreign Ministry statement.
It added that Washington had "categorically refused a dialogue" on Bout's exchange, but Russia had "continued this work."
Addressing reporters at the White House, US President Joe Biden said Griner "will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along."
"These past few months have been hell for Brittany and for Cherelle (Griner, her wife), and her entire family and all her teammates back home," he said. "The fact remains that she's lost months of her life, experienced needless trauma. She deserves space, privacy and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time being wrongfully detained."
The US earlier offered a swap deal that included Griner and Paul Whelan, who has been held in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges, in exchange for Bout's release. But Whelan was not part of the deal that happened on Thursday.
Biden said the US will continue to work for his release, maintaining: "We've not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years."
"This was not a choice of which American to bring home," he said. "Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul's case differently than Brittney's. And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up. We will never give up. We remain in close touch with Paul's family, the Whelan family and my thoughts and prayers are with them today."
Earlier, Biden tweeted that Griner is “safe” and on her way back home after being held in a Russian penal colony.
Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, said she and Brittney "will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate BG being home."
"We do understand that there are still people out here who are in doing what I endured the last nine months of missing tremendously their loved ones," she said.
Bout was arrested in Thailand in 2008 on charges of illegal arms deliveries, extradited to the US, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Griner was arrested in February at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on suspicion of trying to illegally import hashish oil into Russia and sentenced to nine years behind bars. Last month Griner was taken to a penal colony.