U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has been released in a prisoner swap with Russia and is now in U.S. custody, a U.S. official said on Thursday.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone with Griner, the official said, adding that she was in good spirits.
Biden is to make remarks at 8:30 a.m. (1330 GMT), the White House said.
The swap involved former arms dealer Viktor Bout, CNN reported.
Brittney Griner, 32, is a double Olympic champion and seven-times All-Star player in the U.S. Women’s National Basketball Association (WBNA).
Standing 206 cm (6 feet 9 inches) tall, the high-scoring Texan center was selected first overall by the Phoenix Mercury in the 2013 WBNA draft.
Known as “BG” to basketball fans, she has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia during the WNBA winter off-season since 2014. The club has drawn other top U.S. basketball players including Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Candace Parker.
At the time of her arrest, she was on her way to Ekaterinburg, 1,400 km (870 miles) east of Moscow, to rejoin her club for the playoffs after spending time at home in the United States.
WHY WAS SHE DETAINED?
Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage, exactly a week before Russia took relations with the West to their lowest level in decades by invading Ukraine.
The player had a prescription in the United States for medical marijuana to relieve the pain from chronic injuries.
The drug has fewer side effects than some painkillers and is a common treatment for athletes in places where it is legal. In Russia, however, marijuana is illegal for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
Griner pleaded guilty to the charges of possessing and smuggling illegal drugs but insisted she had made an “honest mistake” and had not intended to break Russian law.
She testified that she did not understand how the cartridges had ended up in her luggage and speculated that she could have packed them inadvertently as she rushed to make her flight.
“I had no intent, I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime,” she told the court. “I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom.”
At her unsuccessful appeal, she said the amount of marijuana in her luggage had been only slightly above that considered legally insignificant.
Her lawyers said that, in any event, the sentence of nine years in a penal colony was grossly disproportionate.
U.S. officials and prominent athletes say Griner has been wrongly detained and convicted and have called for her immediate release, saying she is being used as a political pawn.
Griner’s initials and jersey number, “42”, have been stencilled onto the courts of all 12 WNBA teams this season.
Alongside many messages of support from across U.S. sport, Megan Rapinoe of the women’s U.S. national soccer team wore a white suit jacket with “BG” embroidered on her lapel as she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Biden.