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WNBA star Brittney Griner has been freed from a Russian prison

WNBA player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, holds a picture of her team as she stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Aug. 4.
Evgenia Novozhenina
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Pool/AFP via Getty Images
WNBA player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, holds a picture of her team as she stands inside a defendants' cage before a court hearing in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Aug. 4.

Updated December 8, 2022 at 11:37 AM ET

President Biden says WNBA star Brittney Griner has been freed from a Russian prison.

Standing along side Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, at the White House, Biden said it was a day that "we worked toward for a long time. "

"She's safe. She's on a plane. She's on her way home after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, held under intolerable conditions," Biden said from the Roosevelt Room.

Biden spoke with Griner from the Oval Office just before making the announcement. He said she was in good spirits, but was experiencing "trauma" and would need time to heal.

"Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along," Biden said.

Russia's Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday in a press release that Griner was swapped at the Abu Dhabi airport for convicted Russian arms trader Viktor Bout.

"As a result of intense efforts, we managed to agree with the American side on organization of an exchange of Bout for Griner," the foreign ministry said in a statement. "The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland."

The U.S. government has long resisted prisoner swaps out of concern that it could encourage the imprisonment of more Americans abroad. The exchange for Bout should not be interpreted as a new normal practice, but that there are times where there are no alternatives, a Biden official said.

The official said the administration felt a "moral obligation," as well as a policy obligation, to bring people who are being held hostage or detained home.

"We start by asking ourselves this question: How is it acceptable for someone like Brittney Griner to be put through sham proceedings and forced to spend [time] ... in a Russian penal colony, in horrific circumstances that she did not deserve? And we regard that as unacceptable," the official said.

The exchange did not include former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who remains imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges that the U.S. says are false.

"While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul's release, we are not giving up," Biden said Thursday. "We will never give up."

Senior administration officials told reporters on a conference call later that the agreement to secure Griner's release was made in recent days after months of talks and a variety of proposals — proposals that were aimed at also trying to secure Whelan's release.

But Russians refused to consider Whelan's release.

"This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home," an official told reporters on a conference call. "It was a choice between bringing home one particular American — Brittney Griner — or bringing home none."

Cherelle Griner said she was overwhelmed by emotions, expressing gratitude to Biden, Vice President Harris and other members of the administration involved in securing her wife's release. She thanked the WNBA, Griner's agent and others.

"BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul," she said.

Griner's detention had been a top priority for Biden and his administration — and he was under increasing pressure to secure her release. In July, she sent him a handwritten letter, saying "I'm terrified I might be here forever." Biden said last month that he hoped Russian President Vladimir Putin would be more willing to discuss a prisoner exchange after the U.S. midterm elections were over.

Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, is a seven-time WNBA All-Star, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first openly gay athlete signed to an endorsement contract by Nike. She also played for Russia's UMMC Ekaterinburg basketball team during the WNBA's offseason.

She was sentenced last August by a Russian court to nine years in prison for carrying less than a gram of hash oil into Russia when she arrived in February of this year for play in the Russian women's professional basketball league. Last month, she was transferred to a prison colony in Mordovia — 300 miles southeast of Moscow — to begin serving out her sentence.

In court, Griner admitted to mistakenly packing two vape cartridges in her rush to pack her luggage — but provided documents that showed the hash oil was legally prescribed by her U.S. doctor for pain management.

Griner leaves a courtroom after the court's verdict in Khimki outside Moscow, on Aug. 4.
Kirill Kudryatsev / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Griner leaves a courtroom after the court's verdict in Khimki outside Moscow, on Aug. 4.

Her arrest in February was just days before Russia invaded Ukraine as tensions between the United States and Moscow were rising.

The U.S. government had labeled Griner "wrongfully detained" and sought a prisoner swap with Russia involving Griner and Whelan. The White House said it made a "substantial offer" over the summer in exchange for Griner and Whelan.

A U.S. official visited Whelan's sister on Wednesday to share the news about Griner, and a U.S. official also spoke to Whelan himself in prison to share the news. Biden intends to speak with Whelan's family as well, the official told reporters.

Biden said his team continues to work for his release.

"Sadly for totally illegitimate reasons Russia is treating Paul's case different than Brittney's," Biden said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.