WNBA Star Brittney Griner Released from Russian Penal Colony

Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner, 32, was released from a Russian penal colony Thursday following a 10-month detainment that stemmed from the discovery of vape canisters and cannabis oil at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

Griner was charged with drug possession and carried out part of her sentence in a Russian prison before being sent to the penal colony.

Griner pleaded guilty in July 2022, but said she harbored no criminal intent. Griner said the canisters, which she had been prescribed to treat chronic pain, were packed inadvertently as she hurriedly prepared for her flight.

Like many WNBA players based in the U.S., Griner regularly competed during the league’s off-season in Russia, where salaries are significantly higher than those in the U.S. She has played for UMMC Yekaterinburg since 2014.

Britney’s often public trial underscored frayed relations amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration sought the release of both Griner and Paul Whelan, an American corporate security executive who remains jailed in Russia.

Ultimately, Griner was released in a trade deal for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had served 11 years of a 25-year sentence in the U.S. The trade took place in the United Arab Emirates.

“She is safe, she is on a plane, she is on her way home,” Biden said in remarks from the White House on Thursday morning. “She will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones and she should have been there all along.” 

Biden added, “I’m proud that today we have made one more family whole. We’ll keep negotiating for Paul’s [Whelan] relief. I guarantee it.”

On Thursday morning, Biden said Griner would be back in the United States within 24 hours.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, “Even in a time of major conflict between Russia and the United States, positive things can and do still occur. I am pleased that Houston Native and WNBA Player Brittney Griner is coming home. Tremendous thanks to President Biden, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and many others who worked tirelessly to bring Brittney home. Tonight, City Hall will be lit up in Red, White and Blue in her honor. Welcome Home Brittney.”