Griner for Bout: WNBA star freed in US-Russia prisoner swap

Griner for Bout: WNBA star freed in US-Russia prisoner swap
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner speaks with her lawyers Alexander Boykov and Maria Blagovolina prior to hearing in Khimki district court. (AP/File)
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Updated 09 December 2022

Griner for Bout: WNBA star freed in US-Russia prisoner swap

Griner for Bout: WNBA star freed in US-Russia prisoner swap
  • The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad
  • “Moments ago, I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden tweeted

WASHINGTON: Russia freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the US releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, American and Russian officials said.
The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden, but carried a heavy price — and left behind an American jailed for nearly four years in Russia.
The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose monthslong imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.
Biden’s authorization to release a Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
The swap was confirmed by US officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations who were not authorized to publicly discuss the deal before a White House announcement and spoke on condition of anonymity. Biden spoke with Griner on the phone Thursday while her partner, Cherelle, was in the Oval Office. The president was to address reporters later in the morning.
“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home,” Biden tweeted.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed the swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu-Dhabi and that Bout has been flown home
Russian and US officials had conveyed cautious optimism in recent weeks after months of strained negotiations, with Biden saying in November that he was hopeful that Russia would engage in a deal now that the midterm elections were completed. A top Russian official said last week that a deal was possible before year’s end.
Even so, the fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that US officials had for months expressed their their determination to bring home both Griner and Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the US government has said are baseless.
In releasing Bout, the US freed a a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. Bout, whose exploits inspired a Hollywood movie, was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that USofficials said were to be used against Americans.
The Biden administration was ultimately willing to exchange Bout if it meant Griner’s freedom. The detention of one of the greatest players in WNBA history contributed to a swirl of unprecedented public attention for an individual detainee case — not to mention intense pressure on the White House.
Griner’s arrest in February made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad. Her status as an openly gay Black woman, locked up in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LBGTQ community, infused racial, gender and social dynamics into her legal saga and made each development a matter of international importance.
Her case not only brought unprecedented publicity to the dozens of Americans wrongfully detained by foreign governments, but it also emerged as a major inflection point in US-Russia diplomacy at a time of deteriorating relations prompted by Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
The exchange was carried out despite deteriorating relations between the powers. But the imprisonment of Americans produced a rare diplomatic opening, yielding the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow — a phone call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — in more than five months.
In an extraordinary move during otherwise secret negotiations, Blinken revealed publicly in July that the US had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for Griner and Whelan. Though he did not specify the terms, people familiar with it said the US had offered Bout.
Such a public overture drew a chiding rebuke from the Russians, who said they preferred to resolve such cases in private, and carried the risk of weakening the US government’s negotiating hand for this and future deals by making the administration appear too desperate. But the announcement was also meant to communicate to the public that Biden was doing what he could and to ensure pressure on the Russians.
Besides the efforts of US officials, the release also followed months of backchannel negotiations involving Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and a frequent emissary in hostage talks, and his top deputy Mickey Bergman. The men had made multiple trips abroad in the last year to discuss swap scenarios with Russian contacts.
Griner was arrested at the Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty in July, though still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case.
She acknowledged in court that she possessed the canisters, but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.
Before being sentenced on Aug. 4 and receiving a punishment her lawyers said was out of line for the offense, an emotional Griner apologized “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.” She added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”
Her supporters had largely stayed quiet for weeks after her arrest, but that approach changed in May once the State Department designated her as unlawfully detained. A separate trade, Marine veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in the US in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy, spurred hope that additional such exchanges could be in the works.
Whelan has been held in Russia since December 2018. The US government also classified him as wrongfully detained. He was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years in prison.
Whelan was not included in the Reed prisoner swap, escalating pressure on the Biden administration to ensure that any deal that brought home Griner also included him.


US downs Chinese balloon over ocean, moves to recover debris

US downs Chinese balloon over ocean, moves to recover debris
Updated 44 min 5 sec ago

US downs Chinese balloon over ocean, moves to recover debris

US downs Chinese balloon over ocean, moves to recover debris
  • An operation was underway in U.S. territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from the balloon
  • Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water

WASHINGTON: The United States on Saturday downed a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
An operation was underway in US territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from the balloon, which had been flying at about 60,000 feet and was estimated to be about the size of three school buses.
President Joe Biden had told reporters earlier Saturday that “we’re going to take care of it,” when asked about the balloon. The Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water. US military jets were seen flying in the vicinity and ships were deployed in the water to mount the recovery operation.
Officials were aiming to time the operation so they could recover as much of the debris as possible before it sinks into the ocean. The Pentagon had previously estimated that any debris field would be substantial.
The balloon was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the coast. In preparation for the operation, the FAA Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coastline, including the airports in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The FAA rerouted air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions.
The Coast Guard advised mariners to immediately leave the area because of US military operations “that present a significant hazard.”
Biden had been inclined to down the balloon over land when he was first briefed on it on Tuesday, but Pentagon officials advised against it, warning that the potential risk to people on the ground outweighed the assessment of potential Chinese intelligence gains.
The public disclosure of the balloon this week prompted the cancelation of a visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Beijing scheduled for Sunday for talks aimed at reducing US-China tensions. The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancelation.
“In actuality, the US and China have never announced any visit, the US making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Saturday morning.
China has continued to claim that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
The balloon was spotted over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.
Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the US was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
Uncensored reactions on the Chinese Internet mirrored the official government stance that the US was hyping the situation. Some used it as a chance to poke fun at US defenses, saying it couldn’t even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leapt to use the news to mock the US
China has denied any claims of spying and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the US not to “smear” it based on the balloon.


Protect, advance women for a better South Sudan, pope says

Protect, advance women for a better South Sudan, pope says
Updated 04 February 2023

Protect, advance women for a better South Sudan, pope says

Protect, advance women for a better South Sudan, pope says
  • The rights of girls and women was a recurring theme on the penultimate day of the pope's visit to South Sudan
  • "Please, protect, respect, appreciate and honour every woman, every girl, young woman, mother and grandmother" the pope said

JUBA: Pope Francis joined other Christian leaders and the UN on Saturday in urging the protection and advancement of women in South Sudan, where rape has been a weapon of war, child brides are common and most girls do not reach secondary education.
The rights of girls and women was a recurring theme on the penultimate day of the pope’s visit to South Sudan, an unprecedented joint “pilgrimage of peace” with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Church of Scotland Moderator Iain Greenshields.
“Please, protect, respect, appreciate and honor every woman, every girl, young woman, mother and grandmother. Otherwise, there will be no future,” the pope said during a meeting of the three leaders with people displaced by conflict.
Later, Welby returned to the theme in his address to about 50,000 people at an ecumenical prayer vigil at a mausoleum to South Sudan’s liberation hero John Garang.
“Young men, you will value and honor women, never raping, never violent, never cruel, never using them as if they were there to satisfy desire,” he said.
“Women of South Sudan, I know that on top of the grief of conflict and the responsibility to provide for your families, many of you live with the trauma of sexual violence and the daily fear of mistreatment in your own homes.”
A United Nations report on South Sudan issued last March condemned widespread sexual violence against women and girls in conflict and said it was “fueled by systemic impunity.”
The report said “widespread rape is being perpetrated by all armed groups across the country, often as part of military tactics for which government and military leaders are responsible.”
South Sudan broke away from Sudan in 2011 but plunged into civil war in 2013 with ethnic groups turning on each other. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, bouts of inter-ethnic fighting have continued to kill and displace large numbers of civilians.
PROTECT, RESPECT, HONOUR
At the event where the three religious leaders heard accounts from children living in displaced persons camps, the resident UN humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Sara Beysolow Nyanti, also raised the issue of pervasive sexual violence against women and girls.
The pope responded by calling on everyone in South Sudan “to ensure that women are protected, respected, valued and honored.”
Francis said that if women are given opportunities “they will have the ability to change the face of South Sudan, to give it a peaceful and cohesive development!“
Sister Orla Treacy, an Irish member of the Loreto Sisters religious order who runs a school in Rumbek, north of the capital, and works to prevent child marriages, said less than 5 percent of girls finish secondary school. About 10 percent of 15-year-old girls and 52 percent of 18-year-old girls in South Sudan are married, she said.
Treacy and a group of students had walked about 200 km (125 miles) from Lakes State to see the pope. She said the governor of that region had recently signed a decree promising to stop child marriages.
South Sudan has the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, according to the World Bank, and poverty and hunger are rife across the country, with two thirds of the population needing humanitarian assistance as a result of conflict as well as three years of catastrophic floods.


Austrian avalanches leave three dead

Austrian avalanches leave three dead
Updated 04 February 2023

Austrian avalanches leave three dead

Austrian avalanches leave three dead
  • "One winter sports enthusiast was killed in an avalanche in Kaltenbach on Saturday," said a police spokesman
  • A 32-year-old Chinese man, also said to be skiing away from the designated routes, died in an avalanche in the resort of Soelden

VIENNA: A series of avalanches in Austria has left three people dead since Friday, as the ski season gets into full swing, with authorities warning of the risks posed by a particularly unstable snow cover.
“One winter sports enthusiast was killed in an avalanche in Kaltenbach on Saturday,” a police spokesman told AFP, declining to give any information about the circumstances of the accident in the small Alpine village.
According to the Austrian news agency APA, the victim was a 17-year-old New Zealander who was skiing off-piste.
On Friday, a 32-year-old Chinese man, also said to be skiing away from the designated routes, died in an avalanche in the resort of Soelden.
A third victim was found dead Saturday after being reported missing the previous day.
APA reported that the man was 50 years old and died in the Kleinwalsertal valley on the border with Germany.
Over the past two days, intensive snowfall and wind have increased the avalanche danger in the Alpine Tyrol and Vorarlberg regions.
Warnings have been issued in both these popular ski resort regions, urging winter sports enthusiasts to exercise caution.
However an alert level four, on a scale of five, has not prevented many holidaymakers from venturing off the marked slopes, authorities said.
The avalanche situation also led to numerous rescue operations on Saturday, made hazardous by the weather conditions.
The February school holidays have begun in Vienna and resorts have filled up, after a gloomy start to the season, marked by the absence of snow at low and medium altitudes.
In recent years, in Austria, a leading winter sports destination, there have been an annual average of 20 deaths on the slopes.


Ukraine, Russia swap prisoners; bodies of British volunteers returned

Ukraine, Russia swap prisoners; bodies of British volunteers returned
Updated 04 February 2023

Ukraine, Russia swap prisoners; bodies of British volunteers returned

Ukraine, Russia swap prisoners; bodies of British volunteers returned
  • The Ukrainian president's chief of staff said 116 Ukrainians had been returned
  • Russian news agencies cited Moscow's defence ministry saying 63 Russian POWs had been freed

DUBAI: Ukraine and Russia traded almost 200 prisoners of war in a swap announced separately by both sides on Saturday, with the bodies of two British volunteers also being sent back to Ukraine.
The Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, said 116 Ukrainians had been returned, while Russian news agencies cited Moscow’s defense ministry saying 63 Russian POWs had been freed.
“We managed to return 116 of our people, defenders of Mariupol, partisans from Kherson, snipers from the Bakhmut (front) and other heroes of ours,” Yermak wrote on Telegram.
Yermak also said the bodies of British volunteer aid workers Andrew Bagshaw and Chris Parry had been sent back to Ukraine.
Bagshaw and Parry were killed during an attempted humanitarian evacuation in eastern Ukraine in January, Parry’s family has previously said.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said the released Russian servicemen included “sensitive category” persons.


Islamophobia ‘every bit as big an issue as racism,’ says Jemima Khan

Islamophobia ‘every bit as big an issue as racism,’ says Jemima Khan
Updated 04 February 2023

Islamophobia ‘every bit as big an issue as racism,’ says Jemima Khan

Islamophobia ‘every bit as big an issue as racism,’ says Jemima Khan
  • ‘It’s hard to make a film where Muslims are the good guys in America,’ says screenwriter ahead of new release
  • ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It?’ also explores pros, cons of dating, arranged marriage

LONDON: Islamophobia is “every bit as big an issue as racism,” UK screenwriter Jemima Khan has told Sky News ahead of the release of her new film “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”

The ex-wife of former Pakistani cricketer and Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke to the channel about the rom-com — inspired by her own life — which explores Islamophobia as well as the “pros and cons of both styles” of dating and arranged marriage, “whether it’s too much choice with apps” or “too little choice with arranged marriage.”

The main character of “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” Zoe, is a filmmaker. The release explores narratives surrounding Islamophobia on screen, as well as the subject of arranged marriage.

“It’s always the Pakistani who’s the terrorist or the suicide bomber or the fanatic. There’s that particular line (in the film) ... ‘We’ve got to leave the airport … We have to leave early because I need to leave time to be randomly selected’,” Jemima said.

“I’m aware from experience of traveling with my kids, particularly to America where we have to leave extra time in between any flight connections because they have Pakistani names that are not Anglicized — Sulaiman and Kasim Khan — they do get taken off and questioned in a way that I don’t.

“It’s hard to make a film where Muslims are the good guys in America … where they’re much more familiar with Muslims playing the baddies. Islamophobia I think is a real issue. I think it’s every bit as big an issue as racism.”

The late Princess Diana’s marriage to then-Prince Charles was “essentially arranged,” Jemima said, discussing the film’s other topic.

She added that arranged marriages are a cross-cultural phenomenon, discussing the high-profile marriage of Princess Diana — whom she enjoyed a close friendship with — and Charles.

“Their marriage was essentially arranged. It used to happen here, even with our royal family. I know it can often seem like a really alien concept, but most marriages even in the world today are arranged if you look at the global population,” Jemima said.

“It wasn’t so long ago that it was kind of the norm even in the UK. There’s a real issue where arranged marriage keeps getting conflated with forced marriage.

“As I get older, I think, if I had parents who could have agreed — and were functional and good at these things — I definitely could have benefited from being introduced to suitable candidates.”

Her relocation to Pakistan aged 21 dispelled some of her beliefs surrounding arranged marriage, she told Sky News, adding that she had “quite a standard, fairly negative idea about arranged marriage and how it fits into the modern world.”

She saw “very successful and happy arranged marriages,” but noticed that they failed to be represented in mass media.

“What’s Love Got To Do With It?” releases on Feb. 24 in the UK.