What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Release from a Russian Penal Colony

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The words “Free BG” were a rallying cry that defined the year, echoed by citizens and celebrities around the world. Brittney Griner, the American WNBA superstar detained in Russia—where she played hoops in the WNBA off-season—since February and sentenced in August to nine years in a Russian penal colony for carrying cannabis oil in her luggage, always felt like a pawn in a showdown between two nuclear superpowers. Griner was exploited by a Russian regime—amid its invasion of Ukraine this year—to showcase the limits of U.S. power and to humble President Joe Biden, who has been simultaneously criticized for failing to win Griner’s release and for prioritizing her case over those of other long-detained Americans abroad.

But in one of the most surprising and uplifting days of the Biden presidency, Griner is on her way home for the holidays, following a prisoner swap that saw her released in exchange for the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

“Britney’s in good spirits,” Biden said at the White House Thursday morning, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Griner’s wife, Cherelle. “She represents the best about America.”

“I’m going to smile right now,” said Cherelle Griner.

Read More: Brittney Griner’s Fight for Freedom

While Griner’s release is sure to bring joy to millions of her fans and supporters, the deal announced Thursday is expected to spark criticism of the Biden administration. That’s because Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 25 years for conspiring to kill Americans. Griner, on the other hand, was arrested for a minor offense and had a U.S. medical prescription for cannabis. Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine convicted in Russia of spying under specious circumstances, was not part of the prisoner swap.

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” Biden said. “While we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up. We remain in close touch with Paul’s family, the Whelan family. My thoughts and prayers are with them today.”

“The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” Whelan’s brother, David, wrote following news of Griner’s release.

While the swap is far from perfect, a wrongfully detained American has won her freedom. Just three weeks ago, when Griner was transferred to a Russian penal colony to serve her sentence, things looked bleak for her. People close to Griner had expressed worry that the longer she remained in prison, the more harmful the psychological trauma of her ordeal would be.

Griner, a gay Black woman, had spent a lifetime shedding such trauma. Friends have said she was in a good place with Cherelle—whom she married in 2019—before her arrest.

Now, Griner will have a chance to rebuild her life. “Today,” said Cherelle, “my family is whole.”

—With reporting by Brian Bennett / Washington

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com