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Brittney Griner back in US after being freed from Russian jail in prisoner swap

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American basketball star Brittney Griner has arrived in the United States after she was released from a Russian prison in exchange for an arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death”.

Griner, 32, who was arrested in Russia in February on drug charges, was seen walking across a runway after her plane landed in San Antonio, Texas.

She was expected to be transferred to a nearby military facility for medical checks, US media reported.

Griner was exchanged in Abu Dhabi on Thursday for Viktor Bout, a 55-year-old Russian national who was serving a 25-year sentence in a US prison.

In footage released by Russian state media, Griner, shorn of her distinctive dreadlocks, and a relaxed and animated Bout could be seen crossing paths on the airport tarmac and heading towards the planes that would take them home.

President Joe Biden said on Thursday that he had spoken to her and that she was in “good spirits” after suffering “needless trauma”.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, WNBA champion and LGBTQ trailblazer, was arrested at a Moscow airport against a backdrop of soaring tensions over Ukraine.

She was accused of possessing vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil and sentenced in August to nine years in prison.

Bout, who was accused of arming rebels in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, was detained in a US sting operation in Thailand in 2008, extradited to the United States and sentenced in 2012 to 25 years behind bars.

He landed in Russia on Thursday, state television said. “Don’t worry, everything is OK, I love you very much,” he told his mother Raisa.

While Griner’s family and friends celebrated her release, another American held in Russia, former US Marine Paul Whelan, detained since 2018 and accused of spying, was not part of Thursday’s exchange.

He told CNN he was “greatly disappointed”.

“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” Whelan told CNN in a phone call from a Russian penal colony.

Biden pledged to obtain Whelan’s freedom, saying “we will never give up”.

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case different than Brittney’s,” he said.

As for Griner’s release, Biden said: “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. It took painstaking and intense negotiations.”

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