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WNBA star Brittney Griner freed from Russian prison

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Brittney Griner is heading home. The WNBA star, who has been detained in Russia since February, has been released as part of a prisoner swap. The man freed from the U.S. is a notorious Russian arms dealer. President Biden announced the news about Griner from the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: She's safe. She's on a plane. She's on her way home. After months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable circumstances, Britney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones. And she should have been there all along.

MARTIN: With more, we are joined now by NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Just describe the scene. It was quite dramatic.

KEITH: Yeah. Early this morning, Biden, Brittney Griner's wife Cherelle and others gathered in the Oval Office to call Brittney, who by then was on a plane heading home. And there were smiles all around. She was exchanged at an airport in Abu Dhabi for an arms dealer named Viktor Bout, whose release has long been a priority for the Russians. And later, Biden announced her release with brief remarks in the Roosevelt Room. And then Cherelle Griner also spoke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHERELLE GRINER: 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.

MARTIN: Griner has been detained since February. Can you just remind us why she was arrested in the first place, how we got here?

KEITH: Yeah. Authorities at an airport in Russia found two hash oil vape cartridges in her luggage. She was on her way into the country to play basketball in a professional league in Russia. Ultimately, she pleaded guilty to drug charges in hopes of receiving a lenient sentence, saying that she had never intended to break the law and that she had been prescribed the drugs by her doctor to deal with pain. Instead, she was sentenced to nine years in prison. And last month, she was moved to a penal colony. This whole time, U.S. officials have said that she was wrongfully detained and should be freed. On July 4, she sent a handwritten letter to the president, pleading with him not to forget about her and other wrongfully detained Americans. And in recent months, there have been intense efforts to get both her and another American, Paul Whelan, released.

MARTIN: But Paul Whelan has not been released, right?

KEITH: Yeah, he has not. And it's not exactly clear what happened with him because he's been part of the conversation all along. Here's what President Biden said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: This was not a choice of which American to bring home. We brought home Trevor Reed when we had a chance earlier this year. 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.

KEITH: Whelan is 52 years old. He's serving a 16-year sentence for espionage at a different Russian penal colony. There are concerns about his health. And the U.S. says that these charges are totally manufactured.

MARTIN: So what did the U.S. agree to secure their release?

KEITH: So the possibility of this prisoner swap was first made public in July. But Russia took a long time to respond to what the U.S. had been describing as a substantial offer. What we know about Viktor Bout is that he is a notorious arms dealer who spent more than a decade in federal prison in Marion, Ill., as part of a 25-year sentence in prison for conspiring to kill Americans and providing aid to terrorists.

MARTIN: Politically, what does this mean for President Biden's victory?

KEITH: Yeah, getting Griner home is a win, no question. Bringing home Americans wrongfully detained in other countries is something that Presidents Obama and Trump also prioritized when they were in the office. It's the sort of thing that is celebrated widely. But often, these stories prove to be more complicated over time as people examine what the U.S. had to give up to secure their release - or in this case, with Whelan still imprisoned despite efforts to have him freed along with Griner.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tamara, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.

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