Finally back on American soil after nearly 10 months captivity in Russia, WNBA star Brittney Griner is spending time in a Texas medical facility before returning to her normal life.
The basketball star – who was released on Thursday as part of a prisoner exchange between the US and Russia for notorious convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout – arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio early Friday for a routine evaluation, and officials have not specified how long she will be there.
“It is my understanding that it will be a few more days before she is released,” Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico, told CNN on Sunday. Richardson and his center work privately for families of hostages and detainees. He previously traveled to Russia to discuss Griner’s release, as well as that of Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who remains in custody.
Griner’s release via prisoner exchange took months to negotiate and marked an end to months of incarceration after the basketball star was arrested at a Russian airport in February on drug charges and subsequently sentenced to nine years in prison.
The Texas facility where Griner is located would be in stark contrast to the Russian penal colony where she was held before her release.
During her time there, Griner had to cut her now-famous dreadlocks to make life easier during the Russian winter, Griner’s Russian lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, told ESPN — and confirmed to CNN.
Most of the women in the penal colony worked on sewing uniforms, but the six-foot-tall Olympic gold medalist was too tall to sit at a work table and her hands were too big to handle the sewing, so she wore the entire day dust. lawyer said.
“We are now focused on ensuring that the welfare of Brittney and her family is prioritized and that all available assistance can be provided to them in an appropriate manner,” said deputy spokesman for the US State Department, Vedant Patel. , Friday at a press conference.
Richardson said it’s important to give former inmates like Griner space as they adjust to life after release.
“We need to give them a little bit of space, a little bit of time to adjust, because they’ve had a horrible experience in these Russian prisons,” said Richardson, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration.
On the day of her release, Griner felt she was going home, special presidential envoy for hostage affairs Roger Carstens, who led the mission to conduct the prisoner exchange in the United Arab Emirates, told CNN.
But it didn’t feel real until he got on a plane and told her that “On behalf of the President of the United States, Joe Biden, and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, I’m here to take you home. Carstens said.
He described Griner as an intelligent, compassionate, humble, and patriotic person, who appeared sane and full of energy during the journey.
“When she finally got on the American plane, I said, ‘Brittney, you must have been through a lot in the last 10 months. Here’s your place. Feel free to decompress. We give you your space,’ Carstens recalls.
“And she said, ‘Oh no. I have been in prison for 10 months now, listening to Russian, I want to talk. But first of all, who are these guys?’ And she went right past me and went to every member of that crew, looked them in the eye, shook their hands, and asked about them, and got their names, and made a personal connection with them. It was really great,” said Carstens.
He described Griner as spending 12 hours of an 18-hour flight talking to him “about everything under the sun”.
Griner’s friend, WNBA player Angel McCoughtry, said she knows Griner needs time and space, but believes she will eventually return to the basketball court.
“We missed her last year. It wasn’t the same in the WNBA without her,” McCoughtry said. “We’re not starting until May, so that gives her a few months to gather and get back in shape and get back into the groove, get back into the American air.”
“We all want to see her, but we are going to give her time and space and have her mentally, emotionally and physically medically evaluated,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.
Jorge Toledo – one of the “Citgo 6” – spoke to CNN on Saturday about how reintegration into society can take time and effort after prolonged incarceration. Toledo was released in October — also as part of a prisoner exchange — after being detained during a 2017 business trip to Venezuela with other oil and gas executives from the Citgo Corporation.
After spending five years in captivity, Toledo said he came home with trouble sleeping and other health problems, and saw small, mundane tasks like driving become a source of anxiety.
Toledo said he was part of a six-day program in San Antonio with a group of psychologists. He said the program was “extremely important” to his reintegration and hopes Griner can benefit from similar resources.
While many are celebrating Griner’s return, the possibility of Whelan’s release remains unclear.
Whelan – an American, Irish, British and Canadian citizen – is currently imprisoned in a Russian penal colony after being arrested in December 2018 on espionage charges, which he has denied. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison. He, like Griner, had been falsely declared detained by US officials.
Now that Griner is back in the US, Richardson said he is optimistic about Whelan’s release, noting that Russia had previously offered a trade for Whelan.
The US tried to persuade Russia to trade both Griner and Whelan for Bout, but Russian officials would not budge, with Russia saying US cases were handled differently based on the charges each faced.
“This was not a choice of which American to take home,” President Joe Biden said last week. “Unfortunately, for totally illegal reasons, Russia is handling Paul’s case differently from Brittney’s. And while we haven’t managed to get Paul released yet, we’re not giving up. We will never give up.”
Whelan said he was happy Griner was released, but told CNN, “I am extremely disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest approaches.”