Photo: Lorie Shaull [Flickr]

US basketball star Brittney Griner is finally free.⁠

Griner was originally arrested in Moscow back in February after authorities found cannabis oil in her luggage.⁠

In her sentencing, she was found guilty of drug possession and smuggling with criminal intent by a Russian court and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony and a fine of a million rubles – approximately $16,300.⁠

According to The New York Times, the queer athlete’s defence described the verdict as “absolutely unreasonable”.⁠

Now after months of negotiation and public attention, the US athlete is finally heading home after President Joe Biden struck a deal with Russia to exchange her for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout.⁠

Biden has since said that Griner is safe and on a plane home from the exchange point, the United Arab Emirates.⁠ “I’m glad to say Brittney’s in good spirits… she needs time and space to recover,” he said at the White House.⁠

Speaking earlier this year on 27 July, state secretary Antony Blinken said the White House had struck a deal with the Kremlin to secure Griner’s release.

“There was a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal,” Blinken said.

“And I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope, move us toward a resolution.”

The deal was also set to see the release of Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who has been detained in Russia since 2018 on espionage charges. However, his release has not been confirmed.

Since then, authorities have been concerned for Griner’s welfare, especially when it was confirmed in November that the Olympic gold medallist had been send to a penal colony.

According to a report from ESPN, Russian penal colonies are known to be extremely harsh and worse than the Moscow detention centre Griner was held in for the first few months of her imprisonment.

News of Griner’s release has been celebrated, with her wife Cherelle praising the efforts of the Biden administration in securing her release: “I’m just standing here overwhelmed with emotions.”

As part of the exchange, one of the world’s most wanted men was released back to Russia. Viktor Bout has been dubbed the “merchant of death” for his arms dealing to warlords and rogue governments around the world since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Now, Russia’s foreign ministry confirmed his swap with Griner has taken place at Abu Dhabi airport, with Bout being flown to Vnukovo airport near Moscow.