Brittney Griner speaks out for first time since her release from Russian prison

The WNBA star thanked President Joe Biden and called for continued efforts to bring Paul Whelan home

Bevan Hurley
Friday 16 December 2022 17:16 GMT
Brittney Griner: Footage released of prisoner exchange in Abu Dhabi
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Brittney Griner said she will do “whatever” it takes to secure the release of former US Marine Paul Whelan in her first statement since being released from a Russian prison.

Ms Griner, 32, thanked her wife Cherelle, Phoenix Mercury teammates, her attorneys and the Biden administration for helping to secure her freedom in a prison swap for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

“It feels so good to be home,” she wrote on Instagram.

“The last 10 months have been a battle at every turn. I dug deep to keep my faith and it was the love from so many of you that helped keep me going. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone for your help.”

The two-time Olympic Gold medallist spent 10 months in Russian custody after being arrested at a Moscow airport with a small amount of cannabis oil.

After months of negotiation between the US and Russia, she was released on 8 December in a contentious exchange for Bout, a notorious weapons trafficker dubbed the “Merchant of Death”.

Ms Griner has been recuperating at the Fort Sam Houston Base in San Antonio since her return to US soil.

In her statement posted to Instagram on Friday, Ms Griner personally thanked Mr Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken for their diplomacy, and urged them to continue pushing for Mr Whelan’s release.

Brittney Griner embraces her wife Cherelle after returning to US soil (US Army South / Miguel Negron)

“I will use my platform to do whatever I can to help you,” she wrote.

“I also encourage everyone that played a part in bringing me home to continue their efforts to bring all Americans home. Every family deserves to be whole.”

Mr Whelan is serving a 16-year prison sentence on what the US State Department describes as “bogus” espionage offences.

Brittney Griner has spoken for the first time since her release from a Russian prison (US Army South / Miguel Negron)

She also confirmed her intention to return to playing basketball for the Phoenix Mercury this season.

“In doing so, I look forward to being able to say ‘thank you’ to those of you who advocated, wrote, and posted for me in person soon.”

The 2023 WNBA season is due to begin on 19 May.

In an interview with CNN from his prison cell last week, Mr Whelan welcomed Ms Griner’s release but said he was “greatly disappointed” not to have been included in the prisoner deal.

Paul Whelan has been sentence to 16 years in Russian penal colony on ‘bogus’ espionage charges (AP)

“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he told CNN.

US officials say that Russia refused to negotiate about including Mr Whelan in the swap.

A Biden administration official said on Thursday that efforts were continuing to secure Mr Whelan’s release.

US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens told MSNBC on Thursday that he told Mr Whelan in a phone conversation “don’t worry, we’re coming to get you”.

When asked if he had any negotiating leverage, Mr Carstens said: “We have some arrows in the quiver.”

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