American basketball star Brittney Griner arrived in the United States Friday morning after she was released from a Russian prison in exchange for an arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.”

Griner, 32, who was arrested in Russia in February on drug charges, was seen by an AFP reporter walking across a runway after her plane landed in San Antonio, Texas.

She was expected to be transferred to a nearby military facility for medical checks, US media reported.

Griner was exchanged in Abu Dhabi on Thursday for Viktor Bout, a 55-year-old Russian national who was serving a 25-year sentence in a US prison.

In footage released by Russian state media, Griner, shorn of her distinctive dreadlocks, and a relaxed and animated Bout could be seen crossing paths on the airport tarmac and heading towards the planes that would take them home.

President Joe Biden said on Thursday that he had spoken to her and that she was in “good spirits” after suffering “needless trauma.”

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA champion and LGBTQ trailblazer, was arrested at a Moscow airport against a backdrop of soaring tensions over Ukraine.

She was accused of possessing vape cartridges with a small quantity of cannabis oil and sentenced in August to nine years in prison.

Bout, who was accused of arming rebels in some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, was detained in a US sting operation in Thailand in 2008, extradited to the United States and sentenced in 2012 to 25 years behind bars.

He landed in Russia on Thursday, state television said. “Don’t worry, everything is OK, I love you very much,” he told his mother Raisa.

While Griner’s family and friends celebrated her release, another American held in Russia, former US Marine Paul Whelan, detained since 2018 and accused of spying, was not part of Thursday’s exchange.

He told CNN he was “greatly disappointed.”

“I don’t understand why I’m still sitting here,” Whelan told CNN in a phone call from a Russian penal colony.

Biden pledged to obtain Whelan’s freedom, saying “we will never give up.”

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case different than Brittney’s,” he said.

As for Griner’s release, Biden said: “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. It took painstaking and intense negotiations.”

‘Family is whole’

Biden announced Griner’s release on Thursday flanked by her wife, Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“I’m just standing here, overwhelmed with emotions,” Cherelle Griner said.

“Today my family is whole, but as you all are aware there’s so many other families who are not whole.”

The Griner family thanked President Biden and his administration in a statement, and said they “pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans.”

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said there was a “collective wave of joy and relief” in the women’s professional league where Griner has been a star for a decade with the Phoenix Mercury.

Biden thanked the United Arab Emirates for helping “facilitate” Griner’s release and the UAE issued a joint statement with Saudi Arabia saying it was the result of “mediation efforts” by leaders of the two Arab nations.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, however, there was “no mediation involved” and “the only countries that negotiated this deal were the United States and Russia.”

‘Rescue our compatriot’

At the time of her arrest, Griner had been playing for a professional team in Russia, as a number of WNBA players do in the off-season.

She pleaded guilty to the charges against her, but said she did not intend to break the law or use the banned substance in Russia.

Griner testified that she had permission from a US doctor to use medicinal cannabis to relieve pain from her many injuries.

The use of medical marijuana is not allowed in Russia.

The Russian foreign ministry said it had been negotiating with Washington to secure Bout’s release “for a long time” and that initially the United States had “refused dialogue” on including him in any swap.

“Nevertheless, the Russian Federation continued to actively work to rescue our compatriot,” it said.

The 2005 film “Lord of War” starring Nicolas Cage was based in part on Bout’s arms trafficking, and he has been the subject of several books and TV shows.

Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, told Bout in a video message that he was aware that the arms dealer had been subjected to “powerful physical and moral pressure” while in prison, Russian news agency TASS reported.

Asked about Bout’s release, a senior US defense official said “there is a concern that he would return to doing the same kind of work that he’s done in the past.”

Moscow said on Friday that ties with Washington remained in “crisis”.

“It is probably wrong to draw any hypothetical conclusions that this could be a step towards overcoming the crisis that we currently have in bilateral relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Izvestia newspaper.

Ties “continue to remain in a sad state.”

© Agence France-Presse

The mother of a U.S. Capitol rioter asked for leniency in his sentencing by arguing that he had been duped by Donald Trump.

Troy Sargent, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, pleaded guilty to assaulting a police officer during the Jan. 6 insurrection, and prosecutors are recommending a 27-month prison term. But his mother asked the judge to go easy on her son.

“Troy now sees that his beliefs about Trump were offbase and that while he supported Trump, Trump did not support him at all,” his mother said in a court filing. “He was used along with many, many others to create energy and momentum for a political cause that had no merit.”

She told the judge that her son had been radicalized online, and as his mistrust in mainstream beliefs grew he was drawn closer to conservative media outlets and misinformation sites. She added that her son bombarded friends and family with conspiracy theories and set up a “Pittsfield 411” Facebook page to “educate” followers about his views.

“He would send me numerous videos and ask me to watch,” she said in the filing. “This constant attempt to bring these messages to me and the general public were certainly annoying. I hate to admit it, but inviting Troy to family events was fraught with worrying about how passionate he will be with his latest belief.”

She said all that changed after Jan. 6, 2021, and he expressed remorse for attending the demonstration that turned deadly, and he had “dropped his macho façade,” but prosecutors disputed that in their sentencing memo.

“The defendant was cautioned ‘Do not start attacking people,'” prosecutors wrote in their filing. “Immediately after that, the defendant tried to strike the same victim officer, again, with his open hand. And, the defendant understood both strikes as an attempt to inflict injury upon another, saying that he ‘punched [the officer] as hard as I could [right] in his [visor]’ and ‘I got two hits in on the same rookie cop and then he maced me.’ Thus, Sargent committed a ‘felonious assault.'”

Body camera footage showed Sargent attacking police, and his social media acquaintances tipped off federal investigators.

In an exclusive interview she granted to Jake Tapper to discuss her departure from the Democratic Party, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (now I-AZ) fired back at the CNN host when he questioned the timing of her announcement after her now-former party took a 51-seat edge in the Senate.

As part of her roll-out to make her bombshell announcement, the controversial Arizona lawmaker claimed she was making the move to independent to better serve her constituents and that her votes will not fundamentally change.

Things grew a bit tenser when the CNN anchor asked if the departure was necessary in light of the Georgia U.S. Senate run-off that is sending Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) back to Washington D.C.

“Ever since Raphael Warnock, Senator Warnock was re-elected earlier this week the balance of power is 51 votes for the Democratic Party,” Tapper pointed out before adding, “That includes two independents, Angus King and Bernie Sanders, but that’s 51-49. What you’re doing today doesn’t change that; it’s still going to be 51-49.”

“I know you have to ask that question but that’s kind of a D.C. thing to worry about,” Sinema fired back. “What I’m focused on is making sure I’m doing what comports with my values and the values of Arizonans. So I’m going to still come to work and hopefully serve on the same committees I’ve been serving on and continue to work well with my colleagues of both political parties and not spend much time on what the mechanics look like for Washington D.C.”

“To be honest, Jake,” she added. “I don’t think anyone in Arizona is caring about that, either.”

Watch below or at this link.

CNN 12 09 2022 06 03 41

All signs are starting to point toward Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis mounting a 2024 campaign challenge to Donald Trump.

DeSantis first ran for governor as an unabashed Trump supporter but has emerged as the former president’s top GOP challenger, and NBC News correspondent Marc Caputo, who covers Florida politics, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” the recently re-elected governor appeared likely to enter the Republican primary.

“I have always held that Ron DeSantis is not going to run against President Trump unless the polling changes,” Caputo said. “Well, the polling has changed.”

“One of the things that you notice if you observe DeSantis [is] he’s calculating, he’s cautious,” Caputo added. “He’s data driven and he’s disciplined, and so if the trend continues and if there’s really a space for him to take on Trump and win, yeah, I think he’ll probably do it. Those are two big ifs, and there’s got to be a lot more time to elapse, a lot more polling and, to your point, your original point asking the question, there’s this time, this period of time for him to make himself more of a national figure. How does Ron DeSantis do that? How does he make his case without up running for president to position himself to run for president? We’re going to have to see.”

Watch the segment below or at this link.

12 09 2022 06 55 35

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema announced she’s leaving the Democratic Party and registering as an independent.

The reactions were mixed, with many questioning her motivations and wondering how her defection would impact the Democrats newly won 51-49 majority, and others criticized her as self-serving — but no one was especially surprised.

“Feels more like Sinema is announcing her Senate retirement early than a real change in party affiliation,” tweeted Bulwark columnist Amanda Carptenter. “We shall see.”

“Kyrsten Sinema, translated: Well this won’t be any fun at all now so I need to find some other thing that will make Me Me Me seem important,” wrote Kentucky-based columnist Teri Carter.

“Rather than risking a primary defeat, she’s created a scenario where if Democrats run a candidate in the 2024 general they risk throwing the race to the likes of Kari Lake,” said Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow for Media Matters for America.

“Lots of ifs with Sinema, a big one: if she runs for re-election, that will make it a three-way race next year with a Democrat & a Republican on the ticket who very well could be Kari Lake,” agreed NBC News correspondent Marc Caputo.

“Dems win a clear majority in the Senate and Sinema’s reaction is to leaves the party to continue taking hostages for big pharma,” said communications specialist Michael Starr Hopkins. “Sinema isn’t just a fraud, she’s what stupid people think an ‘independent looks like.’ I stand by everything I’ve ever said about her.”

“Don’t overthink Sen. Kyrsten Sinema switching from Democrat to Independent,” said former New York congressional candidate Melanie D’Arrigo. “She’s not driven by ideology. She’s driven by which corporations and lobbyists are giving her the most money — which makes her an elected mercenary, not an elected representative of the people.”

“Congratulations to Sen. Sinema, who can finally pursue her policy passions of and represent the vital interests she cares about, like [herself],” tweeted Ohio-based attorney Jesse Taylor.

“Sinema is blatantly power-hungry,” said radio executive Chris Lavoie. “When I lived in Tempe, she ran as a Green. Now she wants to convince Arizonans and the rest of the country that she’s a quirky maverick. She is none of that. Her vacillation shows that @SenatorSinema has no core values.”

“We knew @SenatorSinema wasn’t a Democrat a long time ago,” said New York business executive Mark Elliott. “Especially with this thumbs down move on raising the minimum wage. She’s up for election in 2024 (if she even runs).”

“Kyrsten Sinema is a predictable self-absorbed a-hole,” said activist John Hunigan. “No one is surprised she’s no longer a Dem. This has always been about self-promotion and $ for her.”

Reacting to breaking news that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is changing her party registration from Democrat to Independent, two CNN analysts suggested it was a ploy to main some of the power she had previously before the Democrats picked up a seat in the recent midterm elections.

Sitting down with “CNN This Morning”: hosts Kaitlan Collins and Poppy Harlow, congressional correspondent Lauren Fox was asked about the bombshell announcement made by the Arizona sentaor who has been a thorn in the side of the Democrats in her first term.

After pointing out, “She has really acted independently, time after time,” Fox remarked, “I think the key question of course is where is she going to spend her time? Is she still going to caucus with Democrats?”

“Jake [Tapper] asked that question and it’s a key one, she skirted around it and it matters because of the balance of power in the U.S. Senate,” she added. “Is she going to continue to serve on her committees and Democrats are going to have the 51 vote advantage, that matters for subpoena power, for how the committees are made up.”

Analyst Audie Cornish interjected, “She’s being honest in nothing is going to change in the fact she was able to use her status as someone who is inclined to bring Republicans on board to elevate herself in any given discussion.”

“She, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, they’re able to have a transactional relationship with their own party and extract concessions that benefit them and their constituencies in their state,” she continued. “It’s not an accident she said Arizona voters half a dozen times and we know in Arizona there were a lot of ticket-splitters in the election. Whether or not she’s running in the future, it’s fair to say she’s trying to maintain the power that she has gained by making this move.”

Watch the entire discussion below:

CNN 12 09 2022 06 11 11

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa revealed on Friday that K-pop star TOP and DJ Steve Aoki will be among the eight crew members he plans to take on a trip around the moon as soon as next year, hitching a ride on one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets.

Maezawa bought every seat on the maiden lunar voyage, which has been in the works since 2018 and would follow his trip on a Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) for a 12-day stint last year.

The picks were announced by Maezawa on Twitter and at a website for what he dubbed the #dearMoon Project.

The fashion tycoon and his crew would become the first passengers on the SpaceX flyby of the moon as commercial firms, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, usher in a new age of space travel for wealthy clients.

The mission aboard SpaceX’s Starship vehicle is scheduled to take eight days from launch to return to earth, including three days circling the moon, coming within 200 kilometres from the lunar surface. Though the flight was scheduled for 2023, it is facing delays due to ongoing tests of the spacecraft and its rockets.

Like fellow billionaire Musk, Maezawa has a flare for promotion and an infatuation with Twitter — he has boasted to holding the Guinness world record for the most retweeted post, when he offered a cash prize of 1 million yen ($7300) to 100 winners for retweeting it.

Maezawa used the micro-blogging site to recruit eight crew members from around the world to join him on the moon trip, saying 1 million people had applied.

TOP, the stage name of Choi Seung Hyun who broke out with the K-pop group Big Bang, is among the higher profile members selected, along with Aoki, a Japanese-American musician and DJ whose father founded the Benihana restaurant chain.

“I feel great pride and responsibility in becoming the first Korean civilian going to the moon,” TOP said in a video posted after the announcement.

Indian actor Dev Joshi was also among the picks for the group, comprised largely of artists and photographers. US Olympic snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington and Japanese dancer Miyu were named as backup crew members.

Maezawa, 47, flagged an update to the lunar expedition on Monday, tweeting he’d held an online meeting with Musk and was readying a “big announcement about space.”

Maezawa made his fortune founding the online fashion retailer Zozo Inc 3092.T, in which Softbank Group Corp’s 9984.T internet business is now the top shareholder.


In a dark auditorium in Reykjavik, bubbling orange lava flows down a slide to within inches of awe-struck visitors.

The flow, contained on both sides by black sand, lights up the room like a sunrise.

This is the Lava Show, Iceland’s latest tourist attraction, that uses reheated lava from a real eruption of the island’s Katla volcano more than 100 years ago.

The heat emanating from the molten rock is tangible, so much so that some of the spectators shuffle in their seats to remove their coats.

“This is the show where you get to experience real molten lava flowing inside of a building, intentionally,” the Lava Show’s Scottish host Iain MacKinnon joked.

The molten liquid sizzled as it hit blocks of ice, crackling like the sound of breaking glass as it cooled.

“It was really beautiful,” Jasmine Luong, a 28-year-old Australian tourist from Melbourne told AFP.

“I can see why a lot of people would be drawn to (an eruption), but obviously you wouldn’t be able to go near it in a normal natural setting,” she added.

“This is a lot safer.”

‘Wow effect’

There is the same “wow effect” that people get at an eruption site, MacKinnon said.

Hundreds of thousands of curious onlookers have flocked to watch the hypnotizing jets of lava at Iceland’s Mount Fagradalsfjall after two eruptions over the last year just 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Reykjavik.

But not all Icelandic eruptions are safe.

While the lava used in the show retains a hint of sulphur, the dangerous toxic gases that normally emanate from an eruption have dissipated, since the rock has been reheated and melted down so many times.

More than 600 kilos (1,320 pounds) of tephra — the rocks ejected from Katla, one of Iceland’s most dangerous volcanoes, when it last erupted in 1918 — are used in the Lava Show.

“We heat that up to its melting point, which is around 1,100 degrees Celsius (2,000 Fahrenheit) and then we pour it into the room,” said the show’s founder Julius Jonsson.

In an adjoining room, a large furnace has been modified to suit the show’s needs.

Jonsson’s company has run a version of the production in the seafront village of Vik in south Iceland since 2018, but the Reykjavik show only opened last month.

He came up with the idea of a lava show when he was standing atop a glacier watching lava flow from Fimmvorduhals, a small eruption that preceded the massive Eyjafjallajokull one in 2010, whose ash cloud disrupted air traffic and stranded more than 10 million travelers.

Known as the land of fire and ice, Iceland has 33 volcanic systems currently considered active, the highest number in Europe. It has an eruption every five years on average.

“We thought it would be wonderful for Iceland if lava would always be flowing,” Jonsson said.

© 2022 AFP

The US dollar will bear two women’s signatures for the first time, belonging to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and US Treasurer Lynn Malerba, officials said Thursday as they unveiled the banknotes.

The notes are set for delivery to the Federal Reserve this month and will be in circulation starting 2023, according to the Treasury Department.

“This is the first time the signature of a woman Treasury Secretary will be on a US banknote. And the first time the signatures of two women will be on our currency,” said Yellen in a speech at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Today is not about me or a new signature on our currency. It’s about our collective work to create a stronger and more inclusive economy,” she added.

Currently, women represent about 62 percent of the Treasury workforce and hold positions of power, she said.

But much more needs to be done, Yellen added.

“I hope that today is a reminder of the road we’ve traveled on equity and inclusion. And I hope it motivates us to continue to move forward,” she said.

Malerba’s signature also marks the first time US currency will feature the signature of a Native American woman.

“This moment is history,” said Malerba.

The first such notes coming into circulation will be $1 and $5 bills.

“I’ll admit: I spent some quality time practicing my signature before submitting it,” Yellen said.

Former president Barack Obama’s Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner “famously had to change his signature in order to make it legible,” she added.

Apart from the site in Texas, the only other greenback printing facility is in US capital Washington.

The Metropolitan Opera said Thursday that a cyberattack had prevented its website, box office and call center in NY from functioning.

The prestigious institution said its “network issues” had begun on Tuesday.

All performances are taking place as scheduled, the Met said, but new ticket orders, exchanges and refunds were not immediately possible.

The organization provided no explanation or details about the attack, and a spokesperson for the Manhattan-based company did not immediately respond to an AFP query.

The specialist outlet OperaWire, citing a letter to company members from General Manager Peter Gelb, said an investigation into the attack was ongoing.

“Unfortunately, we’ve experienced a cyberattack that has temporarily impacted our network systems,” the letter read.

“We launched an immediate investigation into the nature and scope of the incident. While web experts work to resolve the situation, our systems are down.”

Gelb said the Met was also temporarily unable to process paychecks.

Cyberattacks have plagued companies and governmental offices in the US and elsewhere for years.

The US House of Representatives on Thursday passed a mammoth national defense spending bill that includes tens of millions of dollars to help bolster cybersecurity efforts. The measure still requires Senate approval.

© Agence France-Presse