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Griner did not want to be alone on the flight back to the US

American basketball player Brittney Griner on the plane after being released on December 9, 2022. Photo taken from video provided by the Russian Security Service.  (Russian Security Service via AP)
American basketball player Brittney Griner on the plane after being released on December 9, 2022. Photo taken from video provided by the Russian Security Service. (Russian Security Service via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — American basketball player Brittney Griner didn’t want to be alone when she boarded a US government plane that brought her home.

“I’ve been in prison for 10 months listening to the Russians, I want to talk,” Griner said, according to Roger Carstens, the US envoy in charge of hostage situations, who helped secure the athlete’s freedom and organize her return to US soil.

He then asked Carstens, referring to other people on the plane, “But who are these guys in the first place?”

“He walked past me and addressed all the crew members, looking them in the eye, shaking their hands and asking about them, asking their names, making a personal connection with them,” recalls Carstens. “It was really amazing.”

In the end, Griner spent about 12 hours of an 18-flight talking to others on the plane, Carstens said. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and star of the Phoenix Mercury professional basketball team spoke of her time in the Russian penal colony and her months in captivity, Carstens recalled, though she declined to go into specifics.

“I was left with the impression that he was an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting and patriotic person,” Carstens said. “But above all, authentic. I’m sorry I met her this way, but I actually felt blessed to have had the chance to meet her.”

Although Griner is undergoing a full medical and mental evaluation, Carstens said she seemed “full of energy, she looked fantastic.”

Griner, who also played basketball in Russia, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities accused her of having vaping devices and cannabis oil. The United States maintained that she was illegally detained, which Moscow rejects.

President Joe Biden announced Thursday that the United States had secured Griner’s release. In exchange, the administration released notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence on charges of conspiring to sell tens of millions of dollars worth of weapons that US authorities said were to be used against Americans.

But the United States was unable to secure the release of Paul Whelan, who has been held in Russia for nearly four years. Government officials have repeatedly insisted that they continue to work to free Whelan, who Russian authorities have jailed on espionage charges that both his family and the US government consider baseless.

“Mr. Whelan is being held differently because of these espionage charges,” John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Sunday. “So we’re working on that now. We are more informed now, clearly having gone through this process in recent months. We are more informed. We have a better idea of ​​the context, of what Russia’s expectations are and we are going to continue working on it.”

Carstens, the US government’s top hostage negotiator, said “there are always cards” to play to get an offer for Whelan and said he spoke with the jailed American on Friday.

“This is what I told you. I said, ‘Paul, you have this president’s commitment. The president is focused. The Secretary of State is focused. I’m certainly focused, and we’re going to bring you home,’” Carstens said. “And I reminded him, ‘Paul, when you were in the Marines, and I was in the Army, they always reminded you to keep the faith.’ And I said, ‘Keep the faith. We’re coming for you.’”

Carstens spoke on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and Kirby appeared on ABC’s “This Week.”

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