Brittney Griner, the American basketball star who was released from nearly 10 months of detention in Russia during a prisoner exchange with notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, undergoes a physical and mental assessment at a the Texas Army as part of its rehabilitation in the United States. .
The two-time Olympic gold medalist is being debriefed at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. She returned to the United States on Friday morning and was immediately whisked away for what was described as “thorough health evaluations”.
National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby told ABC News on Sunday that early indications indicate Griner is doing well. “She is in very good spirits and in good health,” he said.
As the WNBA and Olympic champion gradually reintegrates into American society, the political fallout from her high-profile prisoner swap with Bout has continued. So does the current fate of other Americans detained by Russia not included in the Kremlin deal, including demobilized sailor Paul Whelan, who served nearly four years of a 16-year sentence for alleged espionage. .
Joe Biden’s presidential special envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, said negotiations over Whelan were continuing. He told CNN on the State of the Union: “We have an open and ongoing dialogue with the Russians and we have a commitment from the president, and certainly from my office, to bring Paul Whelan home.”
Carstens described speaking with Whelan in a Russian prison a day after news broke of the swap securing Griner’s release and assuring him that the US government was committed to bringing him home. He said he urged Whelan to “keep the faith – we’re coming for you”.
The White House has responded to criticism that they should have secured the release of Griner and Whelan in exchange for such a prominent arms dealer by insisting that a two-for-one deal was never considered. Carstens said a specific proposal to get the two individuals out was made to the Russians but “it went nowhere”.
He added: “It was clear that they were treating Paul very separately because of these bogus espionage charges they had brought against him.”
The Biden administration also continues to be slammed by Republican critics and others for letting an infamous arms dealer go free. Bout, nicknamed the “merchant of death”, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring to kill Americans and selling arms to FARC insurgents in Colombia.
New Jersey Democratic Senator and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez denounced Bout’s release as “deeply troubling.” He said it would encourage dictators to take hostages.
“We must stop inviting dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans abroad as bargaining chips,” he said.
Top Republicans have used similar arguments to attack Biden. Former Donald Trump secretary of state Mike Pompeo told Fox News on Sunday that Vladimir Putin and other hostile regimes, including Iran, would be encouraged.
“Trading bad guys for celebrities creates the wrong incentives for bad guys,” he said.
In his CNN interview, Carstens acknowledged that the decision to strike a deal with Russia had been difficult. “It’s hard to stop these dictators and these dictatorial governments from taking Americans and trying to use them as bargaining chips,” he said, adding that Biden had introduced new sanctions against people taking hostages abroad whom he had promised to deploy soon.
Carstens also gave new details of how he met Griner as part of the prisoner swap in Abu Dhabi and then escorted her back to the United States. During the 18-hour flight, she had spent about 12 hours talking, including about her Russian ordeal.
“I got the impression that he was an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble and interesting person – a patriotic person,” the envoy said.
Griner was sentenced to 9.5 years in prison after being arrested at an airport in Russia and accused of transporting vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. The basketball star said she made a mistake packing the canisters and presented evidence that she was prescribed cannabis as a pain treatment.
Bout told Russian public broadcaster RT that he exchanged words with Griner on the tarmac in Abu Dhabi. “I wished her well, she even held out my hand,” he said, according to a Washington Post report.
RT asked Bout if Griner had engaged with him. “Yes, she did, and I felt she was very positive towards me,” he said.
The claim cannot be independently verified. Griner has not commented, and edited video footage released by Russian state media appears to have been cut precisely when any direct encounter between the two individuals allegedly took place.