The two countries have exchanged American basketball star Brittney Griner, who is imprisoned in Russia, and Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is imprisoned in the United States. The two prisoners were exchanged on Thursday. News from Reuters.

The exchange was arranged after months of negotiations amid high tensions between the two countries following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Television footage showed Griner on a flight to Texas as Bout arrived in Moscow and hugged his mother and wife after stepping onto the tarmac.

Griner had been in captivity for a week before the invasion of Ukraine. “He’s safe, he’s on a plane, coming home after months of wrongful detention in Russia,” Biden told reporters at the White House after his release. He was in an unbearable situation. This is a moment we’ve been working towards for a long time. We have not stopped pressing for his release.’

Russia rejected Biden’s efforts to secure the freedom of Paul Whelan, also a former Marine imprisoned in Russia. He forced Biden to pick only Griner out. The Russians treated Whelan differently, he said, without elaborating on the announcement.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told CBS News, ‘The choice before us was one or nothing. The President decided that Britney needed to be brought home now and that it was important to continue working to bring Paul back as well.’

Griner, 32, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and star for the Phoenix Mercury of the Women’s National Basketball Association. He was arrested after landing at a Moscow airport on February 17 after being found in his luggage containing vape cartridges containing banned cannabis oil in Russia.

He pleaded guilty at trial, saying he used the cartridges to relieve pain from a sports injury and made an ‘honest mistake’. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to nine years from 4 August.

Bout (55) was exchanged with Griner, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. He is a Russian national who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 by a US court on charges related to his arms-dealing career. For nearly two decades, Bout was the world’s most notorious arms dealer. Selling weapons to rogue states, rebels and warlords in Africa, Asia and South America.

“I made it,” Bout said on Russian television. This is the main point. They just woke me up in the middle of the night and said ‘get your things together.’

A prisoner exchange was a rare example of cooperation between the United States and Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. The two countries also swapped prisoners in April when Russia released former US Marine Trevor Reed and the US freed Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko.

The White House said the arrangements were put together in the last 48 hours after Biden decided to exchange bouts. The conditional pardon for Bout was not completed until Thursday after US officials in the UAE verified that Greener had arrived there.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone with Greener’s wife, Cheryl, from the Oval Office. Griner was in good spirits and displayed ‘humor and incredible dignity’ throughout the ordeal, Biden said. These past few months have been hell for Britney. Even for his wife, family and teammates.

The UAE president and Saudi crown prince led the mediation effort that secured Griner’s release, the UAE and Saudi Arabia said in a joint statement.

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre expressed appreciation that Saudi Arabia and other countries had raised the issue but said the discussion was between Russia and the United States. There was no mediated relationship.

(Dhaka Times / 09 December / SAT)