Brittney Griner (Photo by Lorie Shaull)
American LGBTQ+ Olympic basketball gold medalist Brittney Griner has returned to the US after being released in a prisoner swap with Russia.
Griner, 32, flew into Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston in Texas on Friday. She was taken to an army medical centre for a “routine evaluation”.
“The US government is focused on ensuring that Brittney Griner and her family’s well-being are prioritized and that all assistance available be offered in an appropriate manner,” said a State Department spokesperson.
She was released after Russia agreed to exchange her with Russian international arms dealer Viktor Bout who was imprisoned in the US.
“Brittney is so much more than a WNBA superstar and Olympian, she is an American hero who had undergone unfathomable hardship,” commented Kelley Robinson, President of the LGBTQ+ rights group Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
“After being wrongfully held for 294 days away from her home, her friends, and most importantly her family, we celebrate her release,” said Robinson.
Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport in February after officials found less than a gram of medicinally prescribed cannabis oil in vape cartridges in her luggage. She was arrested on smuggling charges.
She had flown to the country to play in the Russian Premier League during America’s Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) off-season. Her arrest came amidst deteriorating relations between the US and Russia over the latter’s invasion of Ukraine.
During her trial in July, Griner pleaded guilty but explained that she had not intended to break the law. The court found Griner guilty on 4 August and sentenced her to nine years in prison with a fine of 1 million rubles (about US$16,000).
In November, it was revealed that she’d been sent to a female penal colony in the town of Yavas in the Mordovia region. The US State Department described her trial as a “sham” and said her detention was “unjust and wrongful.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, expressed her distress at her detention on Instagram at the time. “I miss your voice. I miss your presence,” she wrote. “You’re our person! There are no words to express this pain. I’m hurting, we’re hurting. We await the day to love on you as a family.”
Griner, who came out as a lesbian in 2013, plays for both Phoenix Mercury in the US and UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia. Her US national team won Olympic Gold in 2016 (Rio de Janeiro) and 2020 (Tokyo).