President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, on Dec. 8, in Washington, D.C. Biden was joined by Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner's wife (right). (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

By Tashi McQueen,
AFRO Political Writer,
and Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Members,
tmcqueen@afro.com,
msayles@afro.com

WNBA star Brittney Griner was released from a penal colony Dec. 8 after nine months in Russian custody in a prisoner swap for a convicted arms dealer. 

President Biden announced the release  in a Dec. 8 press briefing that was  live streamed on YouTube and official White House social media accounts. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, was at Biden’s side for the announcement. 

“Moments ago I spoke with Brittney Griner and she is safe, on a plane home, after months of being held unjustly,” said Biden. “We never stopped pushing for her release through the hell this has caused for Brittney and Cherelle.”

Biden addressed  the impact of nine months of detention  on the Women’s National Basketball Association star. 

“Brittney deserves space and time to heal from her time of being wrongfully detained. Brittney used characteristic grit and incredible dignity, representing America’s best,” Biden said.

Griner was arrested in Russia Feb. 17, 2022 and charged with possession of vape cartridges that contained cannabis oil. 

On July 7, she pleaded guilty to the charges but said that she did not intentionally bring the oil into the foreign country. Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison in August, and a few months later, was transferred to a penal colony in Mordovia. 

A massive campaign was launched to bring the WNBA athlete home. Teammates, celebrities and elected officials all called for her release. 

Seattle Storm power forward Breanna Stewart, a UMMC Ekaterinburg teammate of Griner, posted a tweet everyday to remind the White House of Griner’s incarceration..

Months ago there was talk of a prisoner exchange for Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine and corporate security director, who has been detained in Russia since 2018. 

Biden said the White House has not forgotten Whelan, even though they could not negotiate his release alongside Griner’s.

“Sadly for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” said Biden. “Though we have not succeeded, we will never give up on Paul’s release and I say that to the family. We urge Russia to ensure that Paul’s health and humane treatment are maintained.”

According to the National Museum of American Diplomacy (NMAD), many U.S. citizens are in foreign jails. 

“In the 1970s over 400 Americans were jailed abroad,” according to NMAD data. “In 2010 alone, consular officers conducted more than 9,500 prison visits, and assisted more than 3,500 Americans who were arrested abroad.” 

According to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, an advocacy group, “over the last decade the number of U.S. nationals wrongfully detained increased 175 percent.” 

Leaders around the country advocated vigorously for Griner’s return and immediately praised her release.

“After nine horrific months behind bars, Brittney Griner’s family, friends, and teammates can finally breathe a sigh of relief that she’s on her way home. For months we kept the pressure on President Biden to do everything in his power to bring Brittney home,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network (NAN) in a statement. “Today, we gladly applaud the administration for the hard work of ensuring Brittney’s imprisonment finally came to an end. My prayers for her and her family remain as strong today as ever, because her journey is far from over.”

Sharpton expressed concern for Griner’s well-being and Whelan’s return.

“Brittney returns home with spiritual and emotional wounds that can only heal now that she’s free. I and the ministers who were denied access to see her in Russia look forward to meeting her here, so we can finally pray over her and offer her spiritual guidance,” said Sharpton. “We also continue to pray for the release of Paul Whelan and all U.S. citizens detained abroad.”

Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, also hailed the release. 

“Brittney Griner’s release is one that is well overdue,” he said. “Brittney’s detention has been an indefensible and agonizing attack not only on Griner herself, but her wife, and her family.”

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