Texas leaders welcomed the news released Thursday that Houston native and WNBA star Brittney Griner has been released from Russian captivity and is US-bound in time to spend Christmas with her family.
“Tonight, City Hall will be lit up in red, white and blue in (Brittney’s) honor. Welcome home, Brittney,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced.
But even as they hailed Griner’s release as cause for relief and celebration, state and city officials also called for the release of other Americans unjustly detained overseas including former US Marine Paul Whalen, who has been in Russian captivity since 2018 on espionage charges. US officials categorically deny those charges.
“After nearly ten months under wrongful detention, I am relieved that Houston native Brittney Griner will finally return home. Brittney has endured unimaginable suffering under the Russian regime, and I am eager for her to be safely reunited with her family on American soil,” Texas Senator John Cornyn said in a statement released on his official website.
“I’m disappointed that the Biden Administration failed to secure the release of additional U.S. citizens in the exchange. President Biden must continue to press for the release of all Americans wrongfully detained by our adversaries, including Paul Whelan and Austin Tice,” Cornyn added.
The Biden administration had earlier this year said they were negotiating for the release of both Griner and Whelan and were dangling convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout – dubbed "The Merchant of Death" – as bait. Russia at first appeared willing, but then rejected several offers and insisted on a “one-or-none” deal for Griner, Secretary of state Anthony Blinken said, according to news reports.
“President Biden … made the extremely difficult decision to allow a prisoner exchange,” Representative Sheila Jackson Lee tweeted on her official Twitter account. “I join with Paul Whalen and his family in continuing to seek his release.”
A two-time Olympian and WNBA star, Griner became the most prominent American to be detained abroad after she was arrested in February over drug smuggling charges for carrying a small amount of hashish oil. She was later sentenced to nine years in Russian labor camps.
Griner had traveled to Moscow to play for a Russian basketball team during the WNBA’s offseason – just as many US female athletes are forced to play abroad to supplement their salaries which are traditionally inferior to their male counterparts. Stardom aside, Griner’s case also drew urgency because of her status as an openly gay athlete and concerns over Russia’s harsh treatment of the LGBTQ community.
Earlier, Jackson Lee indicated to MSNBC’s José Díaz-Balart that she had spoken to Griner’s parents who reside in Houston. “There is jubilation with her mother and father in Houston and her family in Houston,” she said. “And when I say her family I’m talking about the whole great big city of Houston and Harris County and Texas.”
Griner is expected to be stateside within the next 24 hours after the exchange took place at the Abu Dhabi Airport in the United Arab Emirates. Both UAE and Saudi leaders helped broker the deal, according to the Jeddah-based Arab News.
In incredibly gracious comments, Paul Whelan’s brother David said he supported Biden’s decision to take the deal.
“I think president Biden made the right decision,” Whelan said in an interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “His job is to protect all Americans … It would have been wrong for him to leave behind an American when he had the ability to bring them home.”
“I appreciate that (Biden) may have even waited … in hopes that Paul would have been able to come home,” Whelan added referring to the proposals that the Biden administration had put forth. “But it was absolutely the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and I’m so glad that he did, and I’m super excited that she’s free and able to spend time with her family”
Regarding his own brother’s destiny, David Whelan said, “Today I don’t really have any hope ... I don’t think the US has the tools to get Paul home and I don’t know how they can acquire them.”
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