The mediation secured the release of US basketball star Brittney Griner who had been held in Russia since February….reports Asian Lite News
In a major development, Washington and Moscow have conducted a prisoner swap, exchanging US basketball star Brittney Griner for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, held in an American prison for 12 years.
The exchange has happened after a successful mediation led by UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman with US and Russian governments.
In a joint statement, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MoFAIC) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia said the success of the mediation efforts was a reflection of the mutual and solid friendship between their two countries and the US and Russia.
They also highlighted the important role played by the leaderships of two countries in promoting dialogue between all parties.
The statement confirmed that Abu Dhabi received American citizen Brittney Griner yesterday by private plane from Moscow, after the Russian authorities released her, in conjunction with the reception of Russian citizen Victor Bout on a private plane from Washington, after the US authorities released him, in the presence of specialists from the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Both US and Russia claimed their citizens, in preparation for transfer to their countries.
The UAE and Saudi Arabian foreign ministries expressed the thanks of their respective governments to the governments of both countries for their cooperation and response.
Griner, the 32-year-old championship-winning player with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury who for years played for a Russian basketball team in the WNBA’s off-seasons, had been held in the country since February after she was arrested on drug possession charges at a Moscow airport, reports CNN.
Meanwhile, Bout, popularly known as the “merchant of death”, has reached Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed in a statement on Friday.
US President Joe Biden’s administration had proposed a prisoner exchange in July, the BBC reported.
Thursday night’s elaborate swap involved two private planes bringing Griner and Bout to Abu Dhabi airport from Moscow and Washington, and then flying them home.
Footage on Russian state media showed them crossing on the tarmac with their respective teams.
Speaking in the Oval Office, Griner’s wife Cherelle praised the efforts of the Biden administration in securing her release and said: “I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions.”
Also addressing the media at the Oval Office, President Biden said that “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 circumstances, Brittney will soon be back in the arms of her loved ones, and she should have been there all along.
“This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release,” he said.
Biden thanks UAE
Biden also thanked the UAE “for helping us facilitate Brittney’s return”.
“I’m glad to say Brittney’s in good spirits… she needs time and space to recover,” he added.
Bout’s release comes after Biden signed an order for his release, commuting his 25-year jail term, in a direct swap for Griner.
In remarks to the media after landing in Moscow, Bout said that “in the middle of the night they simply woke me up and said ‘Get your things together’ and that was it”, reports the BBC.
Bout’s lawyer, Alexei Tarasov, told Russian media that from the start the US wanted two of its citizens –Griner and former marine Paul Whelan — returned, and the Foreign Ministry in Moscow complained that “Washington categorically refused to engage in dialogue”.
Bout sold arms to warlords and rogue governments, becoming one of the world’s most wanted men.
His secretive career was brought to an end by an elaborate US sting operation in 2008, when he was arrested at a hotel in Bangkok.
He was extradited two years later and has spent the past 12 years languishing in an American jail for conspiring to support terrorists and kill Americans.
Meanwhile Whelan, who continues to be imprisoned in Russia since 2018 on spying charges, told CNN that he was “greatly disappointed” more had not been done to free him, as he had carried out no crime.
“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” he said.