Saudi Prince Brokered Griner Release 2 Days After U.S. Dropped Kashoggi Suit1 min read
December 8, 2022 at 05:18PM Brittney Griner released in prisoner swap for Viktor Bout
A dramatic White House deal that secured the sudden release of Brittney Griner from a Russian penal colony sparked joyous scenes – but was immediately plunged into controversy.
President Biden hugged and celebrated with WNBA star Griner’s wife in the Oval Office as the news of a prisoner swap with Russia was announced.
Yet it triggered despair for the family of a Marine who has been left behind in Russia – and condemnation that Griner was swapped for ‘Merchant of Death’ arms dealer Viktor Bout, whose arms sales have cost countless lives including US servicemen.
The deal was brokered with Vladimir Putin, responsible for the genocide in Ukraine – and with the help of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, just 48 hours after the U.S. dropped a lawsuit holding him responsible for the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The news was met with anger by supporters of former Marine Paul Whelan, who remains in Russian prison. Republicans condemned that as ‘unconscionable’ and said the White House was focused on ‘celebrities’ over veterans detained by Putin.
President Joe Biden addressed the nation from the White House on Thursday morning to discuss Brittney Griner’s release as well as the conditions of Americans still detained abroad
Biden says Brittney Griner is ‘safe’ and ‘on her way home’
Whelan said from prison that he was ‘greatly disappointed’ the Biden administration did not do more to secure his release alongside Griner and said he was ready to ‘go home’.
Republican leader Kevin McCarthy called it ‘unconscionable’ to leave behind Whelan. He said: ‘Merchant of Death – that’s the nickname of the prisoner Biden returned to Putin. He was convicted of conspiring to kill American law enforcement.
‘This is a gift to Vladimir Putin, and it endangers American lives. Leaving Paul Whelan behind for this is unconscionable.’
In the Kremlin the announcement was seen as a ‘New Year’s gift’ to bring home Bout, a former KGB officer who sold arms to human rights abusers in Africa and was linked to deals with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
A senior administration official would not comment directly on MBS’s role but said the U.S. will ‘continue to lean on partners around the world’ to secure the release of unjustly detailed Americans.
The 32-year-old Griner was flown from Moscow to Abu Dhabi on a private jet on Thursday morning and walked across the tarmac to her plane home past ‘Merchant of Death’ Bout. Griner was facing nine years in a Russian penal colony, where she was expected to toil in sweatshop conditions while sewing for 12 hours or more per day.
Addressing the nation from the White House on Thursday morning, the president said Griner was ‘in good spirits’ while returning home after undergoing ‘intolerable’ circumstances in Russian custody.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) toasts with Russian soldiers after awarding them with the Gold Star medal on the eve of the ‘Heroes of the Fatherland Day’ at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 8, 2022, the day the US announced it was returning arms dealer Viktor Bout
When asked about Whelan, Biden insisted the administration was still in talks with his family and were trying to get him home.
Biden spoke with Griner on the phone Thursday, while in the Oval Office with her wife Cherelle.
He said: ‘Brittney is an incomparable athlete, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for Team USA. She endured mistreatment at a show trial in Russia with characteristic grit and incredible dignity. She represents the best America – the best about America.
‘This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release.
‘It took painstaking and intense negotiations, and I want to thank all the hard-working public servants across my administration who work tirelessly to secure her release.’
Minutes after Biden’s remarks, Republican lawmakers heckled the prisoner swap.
‘So a basketball star is released, we can celebrate, but what about Paul Whelan? An American unjustly detained for years,’ Illinois GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger said.
‘May not be high profile but he is innocent. This is a dangerous road.’
Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida stated: ‘Where is U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly held by Russia for far longer? Celebrities over veterans?’
Whelan’s family, meanwhile, said shortly before Biden spoke that they are ‘glad’ for Griner’s freedom but that his continued detention is a ‘catastrophe.’
Indirectly addressing their concern, the president said from the podium: ‘This was not a choice of which American to bring home.’
‘We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan, who has been unjustly detained in Russia for years,’ Biden 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.’
Biden said the White House remains ‘in close touch’ with Whelan’s family and commiserated with their ‘mixed emotions’ over Griner’s homecoming.
‘We’ll keep negotiating in good faith for Paul’s release – I guarantee that. I say that to the family. I guarantee you,’ the president said.
‘I urge Russia to do the same, to ensure the Paul’s health and humane treatment are maintained until we can bring him home. I don’t want any Americans to ship wrongfully detained and one extra day if we can bring that person home.’
The president made no mention of American Marc Fogel of Oklahoma, a teacher who is also detained in Russia on marijuana-related charges.
Asked directly about the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince MBS’s role in the negotiations, a senior administration official said: ‘In the course of getting to this happy result with respect to Brittney, and in the course of working to secure the release of Paul, as we continue to do, we have and I’m sure we’ll continue to lean on partners around the world to work this through with us, to give us their ideas, and to impress upon the Russians how important it is to us to resolve these sorts of cases.’
‘And we appreciate when those partners do help us. And I’ll leave it there.’
Reports that MBS helped broker the deal came two days after a US federal judge rejected a lawsuit against him and other Saudi officials over Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s violent death.
Whelan’s family said: ‘I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home. As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays.’
‘There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home. The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and it make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,’ the statement continued.
They confirmed that administration officials told them ‘in advance’ about Griner’s release and Whelan’s continued detention.
‘That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul.’
Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Bill Keating lauded the swap but reiterated the need to bring Whelan home.
‘While we are very happy that Brittany[sp] Griner is returning home, we cannot forget we still have Americans unlawfully detained in Russia – specifically Paul Whelan. I have been in touch with his family, and they and Paul deserve all of our country’s efforts to bring him home,’ Keating wrote on Twitter.
Suspected Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout, center, is led by armed Thai police commandos as he arrives at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand in Oct. 5, 2010. Russia has freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the U.S. releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout
Brittney Griner’s wife says ‘today is a happy day’ on her return
In a statement celebrating Griner’s release, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi added, ‘Congress stand firmly with the Administration as they continue working to secure the release of Paul Whelan and other Americans unjustly detained in Russia.’
‘Congress and the Country are overjoyed to learn that, thanks to the committed and focused leadership of President Biden, Brittney Griner is finally free,’ Pelosi said.
‘For nearly ten long months, Brittney Griner suffered unthinkable trauma as she was wrongfully imprisoned by the Russian government. Putin’s cruelty against Brittney – and his monstrous actions against Ukraine – are staggering reminders of his brazen contempt for human rights, human dignity and the rule of law.’
Griner was sentenced in August following her February arrest at an airport in Moscow, when Russian authorities say she was caught entering the country with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. She had been at a detention center near Moscow until November 4, when she was moved to the IK-2 facility in Yavas.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist’s monthslong imprisonment brought attention to the population of wrongful detainees in Russia, while adding pressure on the Biden administration to complete a prisoner swap for Griner’s release.
The swap was confirmed by US officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations who were not authorized to publicly discuss the deal before a White House announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity. Biden spoke with Griner on the phone Thursday while her wife, Cherelle, was in the Oval Office. The president was to address reporters later in the morning
Griner was in IK-2 in Yavas, one of several penal colonies in the region, according to Reuters÷
Griner’s wife Cherelle delivered brief remarks after the president, calling Griner’s period of detention ‘the darkest moments of my life.’
‘And so today I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions,’ she said.
‘But the most important emotion that I have right now is just sincere gratitude for President Biden and his entire administration.’
Russian and US officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal now that the midterm elections were completed. A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before year’s end.
In releasing Bout, the US freed a a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, 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.
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