Anyone who sees the recordings for the first time may not recognize the woman immediately. Because Brittney Griner now has short hair, no longer long dreadlocks like when she was arrested in February at a Moscow airport. The prominent US basketball player has spent the past few months in Russian custody, where her hair was apparently cut off.
(Video: SZ/Russian Federal Security Service
Photo: SZ/Screenshot )
After an exchange of prisoners, the 32-year-old is now free. A plane with the athlete on board landed in San Antonio, Texas. That was from officially confirmed. She is now to be examined medically in a military hospital.
On the way, Griner met the man who was released from US custody in exchange for her freedom: the arms dealer Wiktor But. A photo released by Russian state media on Thursday evening shows the basketball player with a short hairstyle and a red jacket meeting But at Abu Dhabi airport.
The Russian has now also returned to his homeland. He landed at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport that night. Russian television showed him being met on the runway by his wife and mother. The 55-year-old said he didn’t know until the very end that he would be exchanged and that he was coming home.
The Griner case has kept Russian and American diplomats busy in recent months. In February, Brittney Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport after customs officers found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She was sentenced to nine years in prison for drug smuggling and was even transferred to a penal colony in November.
Because the US international and two-time Olympic champion was arrested just days before the Russian attack on Ukraine, observers saw the case as politically motivated. Moscow wanted to secure a means of exerting pressure on the US government.
And indeed, the United States paid a high price for Griner’s freedom: In exchange for the basketball player, the United States released the notorious arms dealer But from prison, who was convicted of espionage and served years in prison. He got the nickname for his actions merchant of death, “Merchant of Death”. The Russian government had been trying to get his release for years. Griner and But were both pardoned before the exchange, which means they won’t have to serve the rest of their sentences in their home countries, Tatyana Moskalkova, the Kremlin’s human rights ombudsman, said, according to Interfax.
The recording from Abu Dhabi now shows how the tall Griner and But, who is carrying some documents, run towards each other on the airport runway, accompanied by several men. What is discussed when the two groups are greeted cannot be heard. It is striking that the video shows how the companions of the two former prisoners greet each other, but not what happens between Griner and But.
It seems as if the prominent US athlete takes a step towards But, but then there is a cut and the next moment both sides go in different directions. It remains unclear whether the two greeted each other and why the Russian state media does not want to show this scene.
Another US citizen remains in Russian custody
While there is great joy in the United States at the release of the Phoenix Mercury basketball player, who played in Russia during the off-season, there is also clear criticism of the prisoner swap. The US government failed to bring back from Russia Paul Whelan, a former Marine who, in its opinion, had also been wrongly imprisoned for almost four years.
Republicans in Congress in particular complained that Biden should have obtained Whelan’s release in exchange for But. “Isn’t an arms dealer worth two innocent people?” wrote Congressman Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, on Twitter. “He may not be well known, but he’s innocent,” Kinzinger said of Whelan. But’s release is a “gift” for Russian President Vladimir Putin, complained Kevin McCarthy, who is running for the presidency of the House of Representatives. “Leaving Paul Whelan behind for this is irresponsible.”
According to the US government, it had made efforts to obtain not only Griner’s release but also Whelan’s release. However, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Russia had not been willing to consider a deal including Whelan and that there was “no way we can get Paul home now.” Instead, Biden had to choose whether to bring Griner back or not, she said.
The President himself stated in a speech: “This was not a decision about which American we should bring home.” Russia is treating Whelan’s case differently than Griner’s, Biden said, and promised Whelan’s family that his government would continue to negotiate his release.
With material from the German Press Agency