“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 accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” wrote WNBA athlete Brittney Griner in a handwritten letter to President Joe Biden that was delivered to the White House on Independence Day.
Griner—who plays for the Phoenix Mercury and in Russia during the WNBA’s off-season—was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow in February for allegedly entering Russia with a number of THC oil cartridges in her luggage. She is reportedly being charged with attempting to smuggle drugs in to the country, an offense that could leave her facing up to 10 years in a Russian prison.
“I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home,” she wrote to president Biden.
At a time when relations between the U.S. and Russia are strained over the war in the Ukraine, the State Department has said that Griner was “wrongfully detained” by Russian authorities, but it’s unclear what, if any, steps are being taken to negotiate the basketball player’s release.
The State Department’s designation is a bit mysterious. If authorities believe the Russian government is lying and that Griner is actually innocent of the accusations against her, then it makes sense. If, however, Griner really was in possession of cannabis cartridges, then claiming that she was “wrongfully detained” while continuing to enact similar laws against citizens at home becomes problematic, to say the least.
During a May briefing, State Department spokesperson Ned Price pointed to a number of reasons that the department would use the designation in a case—one of which being that the U.S. national accused of a crime is innocent. “Each case of an American detained overseas is going to be unique, and in each case, we look at the totality of circumstances in that case when it comes to arriving at such a determination.”
Notably, Price did not clarify why the designation was made and made no comment as to whether Griner was guilty or innocent of the charges. The conviction rate in Russia is reportedly higher than 99 percent, and the nation’s laws allow the government to overturn an acquittal.
Signs of Intervention
In late June, Cherelle Griner, the athlete’s wife, spoke with Rev. Al Sharpton on his XML radio show, Keepin’ It Real. She had been advised by the State Department to remain silent on the issue, but after months of seeming inactivity on the agency’s part, Griner’s wife decided to go public with her pleas for the Biden administration to do something about the matter.
“I don’t know if they have a deal on the table and are debating about it,” she said. “I don’t know if they’ve started or not. What I do know is nobody seems to be at the point where they can tell me anything. It’s at that confidential level. So I can only go based off of what I see, and what I see is that my wife isn’t here, so all I know is that they haven’t executed the deal.”
Last week Griner’s trial began after her detention was extended on numerous occasions. During preliminary hearings, the athlete was led into court in handcuffs. Press access to the trial is limited. There will be a number of hearings scheduled before Griner’s legal defense team will be able to present their case.
During the first day of hearings, the prosecutors shared their case against Griner. Two customs agents provided testimony that they had found two cartridges in the athlete’s luggage containing 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil after she arrived at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Khimki from New York. Cannabis is illegal in Russia and possessing less than six grams is punishable by “corrective labor.”
After the hearing, U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Rood told reporters that she’d spoken with the prisoner. “She is doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances, and she has asked me to convey that she is in good spirits and is keeping up the faith,” Rood said. “The Russian Federation has wrongfully detained Ms. Griner and wrongful detention is unacceptable wherever it occurs and it endangers the safety of everyone traveling, living, working, studying abroad. I can assure you that the United States government at the very highest levels is working very hard to bring Ms. Griner as well as all wrongfully detained U.S. citizens safely home.”
A Russian judge ruled that Griner will be detained through the entirety of her trial.
Some advocates asking for Griner’s release are beginning to question whether her arrest was politically motivated as it occurred only days before the start of the war in the Ukraine. In May, Russian government-sponsored Tass claimed that officials were in talks about exchanging Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is currently serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons at a prison in Illinois.
Bout’s lawyer, Steve Zissou, told The New York Times that Griner’s freedom depends on Bout’s release. “It has been communicated to the American side very clearly that they’re going to have to get real on Viktor Bout if they expect any further prisoner exchanges,” Zissou said. “My sense is that no American is going home unless Viktor Bout is sent home with them.”
The Russian government has denied that Griner’s arrest was political in any way and maintains that she was arrested because she broke the law.