October 7, 2022


WNBA star Brittney Griner, 31, has been detained in Russia since February after officials at a Moscow airport allegedly found illegal cannabis oil in her luggage.

Her arrest came shortly before Russia launched a war in Ukraine, with geopolitical tensions no doubt making securing her release more difficult.

Ms Griner’s family, friends and admirers – along with many public figures – have been calling on Russia for months to release her and for the US State Department to intervene.

Her trial began on July 1, days after a court ordered her detention extended until December.

She returned to court on Thursday, July 7, and pleaded guilty to drug charges that could have brought her up to 10 years in prison.

Here’s everything we know about the ordeal.

Who is Brittney Griner?

Ms. Griner plays for the Phoenix Mercury WNBA team as a center.

She also previously competed with the 2016 USA Olympic basketball team, winning gold at the Rio Games and winning her second medal in Tokyo last summer.

She is an accomplished basketball player, winning the Best Female Athlete award at the ESPYs and an endorsement deal with Nike in 2013.

What happened?

On February 17, Ms Griner was traveling through Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow when Russian customs officials reportedly found cartridges containing the offending hash oil in her luggage.

Ms. Griner was taken into custody at the airport on a charge of large-scale drug trafficking, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

On June 27, Russian courts extended Ms. Griner’s detention until December 20.

Her trial began on July 1 with a closed-door hearing, after which she refused to speak to reporters.

The Russian government presented evidence that the WNBA star “purchased two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hashish oil,” according to a courtroom filing report by state news agency Tass.

The trial continued on July 7, with Ms. Griner holding a photo of her husband Sherrell as she told the judge she would plead guilty, according to courtroom reporters.

“I would like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intention. I didn’t want to break the law,” Ms Griner said, speaking in English, which was then translated into Russian for the court.

“I would like to give my testimony later. I need time to prepare.”

Why was he in Russia?

Mrs. Griner had gone to Russia to play basketball in the Russian Premier League.

Many American athletes travel abroad during the US off-season to continue competing in their chosen sport.

Off-season foreign leagues provide American athletes with additional opportunities to earn money and a chance to keep their skills sharp through constant competition.

WNBA stars like Ms. Griner usually do, averagejust 1.5 percent of what their male NBA counterparts make in a year, so playing outside the US often helps make up that pay gap.

Ms. Griner reportedly earns $1 million per season playing in Russia, while her base salary with the Phoenix Mercury is said to be $221,450.

What can be done to help her?

Ms. Griner’s supporters, along with her family and friends, have been calling for her release for months.

said Democratic Rep. John Garamedi CNN that securing her release will be “very difficult” due to ongoing political tensions between Russia and the US over the Ukraine war.

There are some American officials who have theorized that Russia is using Ms. Griner’s detention as a political bargaining chip.

Pentagon official Evelyn Farkas said she feared Ms Griner would be used by Russia as a “high-profile hostage” to secure prisoner exchanges with the US.

On March 23, a diplomatic official was granted access to visit Ms Griner in Russia and said she was in “good condition”.

Russian monitors also checked in on Ms. Griner and reported that she was fine with the exception that the bed at the facility where she is being held was not made for someone of her height.

More than 40 organizations, which include the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, the National Urban League and the National Women’s Basketball Association, sent US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris a signed letter urging them to deal with Russia to secure her release.

US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner sits in a dock before a hearing at the Khimki court outside Moscow on July 27

(AFP/Getty)

The prisoner swap was reportedly first considered on May 15, with Ms Griner potentially being returned to the US in exchange for arms dealer Victor Butt. Mr Bout was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to kill US citizens and officials, delivering anti-aircraft missiles and providing aid to a terrorist organisation. He is currently being held in a US penitentiary.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said he spoke with Cheryl Griner and that his first priority was to secure the release of Americans imprisoned in Russia.

“I have no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being held illegally in one way or another around the world return home,” he said.

“That includes Paul Whelan, including Brittney Griner, that includes people in many other countries.”

Cherelle Griner spoke to Reverend Al Sharpton about her husband’s detention in Russia and described the WNBA star as “struggling.”

“She’s there terrified, she’s there alone,” he said.

Ms. Griner shared her fears directly with Biden in a letter as her trial began.

In excerpts shared by her representatives, she writes: “As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey or any achievement, I fear that I might be here forever.”

Cherelle Griner again criticized the Biden administration’s handling of the case on July 5, calling it “very disappointing” that she had not heard from the White House about her imprisoned wife.

“I’m not going to be quiet anymore,” Cherelle Griner told CBS. “I’m going to find that balance of harm versus help and pushing our government to do everything possible because being quiet means they’re not moving, they’re not doing anything.”

Brittney Griner holds up a photo of players from the recent all star game wearing her number

(AP)

The White House responded by insisting Ms Griner’s case was a “priority” – before Mr Biden and Ms Harris spoke directly to the basketball star.

“The president called Cherelle to assure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other US citizens illegally held or held hostage in Russia and around the world,” White stated. House said in a statement.

“He also read her a draft of the letter the president is sending to Brittney Griner today.”

The statement added that other officials such as Mr. Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan had previous contacts with Cherelle Griner about the situation.

On July 27, Mr. Biden formally offered to swap Bout with Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, as had been discussed earlier, according to U.S. government officials.

“We certainly hope that Russia will engage favorably with this, but I don’t want to get into any more details about that,” John Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, told reporters at the White House’s daily press briefing.

“We think this is a serious proposal and we want the Russians to take it seriously as well.”



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