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White House official reveals Brittney Griner’s first words on plane to US after prisoner swap

After 10 months in detention in Russia, Brittney Griner just wanted to talk.

When she finally boarded a plane bound for the United States following a historic prisoner exchange on an Abu Dhabi tarmac, the newly released WNBA star was escorted by Roger Carstens, the presidential envoy for hostage business, which prepared for his return to American soil.

“When she finally got on the American plane, I said, ‘Brittney, you’ve had to go through a lot in the last 10 months. Here’s your seat. Feel free to unpack. We’ll give you your space ‘” he told CNN on the State of the Union on December 11, three days after US officials traded Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Ms Griner, who was convicted of possessing of a cannabis vape.

“She said, ‘Oh, no, I’ve been in prison for 10 months and I listen to Russian,'” he recalled. “I want to talk. But, first of all, who are these guys?’ »

Ms Griner greeted everyone on the plane, ‘looked them in the eye, shook their hands, asked them questions, got their names’ and ‘established a personal connection with them’ throughout of the 6 p.m. flight, during which she spoke with Mr. Carstens and the crew “about everything under the sun”, he said.

“I felt like he was a smart, passionate, compassionate, humble and interesting person,” he said. “A patriotic person, but above all authentic. I hate that I had to meet her this way, but I truly felt blessed to have had the chance to know her.

He hesitated when asked what they were talking about.

“I would hate to steal his thunder,” he said, “because it’s his story to tell.”

Mr Carstens’ description of events marks the first detailed public account of Ms Griner’s release, 10 months after the arrest of the two-time Olympic gold medalist, Baylor University All-American and basketball star Phoenix Mercury at Sheremetyevo International Airport in February.

She had been sentenced to nine years in prison. Last month, her lawyers announced that she would be transferred to a penal colony.

A deal between Moscow and President Joe Biden and administration officials, under pressure to secure his release amid Russia’s assault on Ukraine, followed months of internal debate and failed efforts to secure the release of detained former US Marine Paul Whelan in addition to Ms. Griner.

Russian media showed footage of Ms Griner stepping off a Russian plane in Abu Dhabi, where two Russians greeted Mr Bout with a hug. Mr Carstens told CNN he presented himself as officials ready to transfer Ms Griner on the plane to the United States.

“I’m with the US State Department. On behalf of United States President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Tony Blinken, I am here to take you home,” he recalled telling her.

“At that point, everyone finally starts to realize that it’s going to happen, it’s settling in — that’s certainly how Brittney felt,” he said. “At this point we have to go through a bit more choreography to get her off the plane. This usually takes about three minutes.

Mr Griner was flown to Houston for a medical evaluation, but Mr Carstens said she was otherwise “full of energy” and “looked fantastic”.

Mr Carstens said US efforts to secure the release of Mr Whelan, who was charged with espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020, are continuing.

“We usually have to keep our cards close to our chest,” he told CNN. “Sometimes you have to adapt. But here’s the thing I’d like to leave you with: we have an open and ongoing dialogue with the Russians. And we have a commitment from this president and my office, certainly, to bring Paul Whelan home.

The Independent Gt

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