The American WNBA star and Olympian remains a political prisoner.
In happier days, Brittney Griner was a basketball star, Olympic champion, and the darling of Hollywood.
Between practicing with her teammates in the WNBA, training with coaches, and attending gala events, Brittney Griner spent time with her family, including her wife, Cherelle Griner.
The couple married in 2019 and were still practically newlyweds when Brittney Griner’s life took a very unexpected and tragic turn.
Before February 2022, Brittney Griner had begun spending time in Russia playing and training with a professional Russian women’s basketball team.
Like so many other expatriates and Americans living and working abroad, Griner’s time in Russia should have been fruitful and mutually beneficial. Russian professional basketball teams would have benefitted from Griner’s perspective and experience; Griner would have left the country with more rubles and Russian friends than she had when first arriving.
Only February 2022 was the month Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to make good on his long-term plans to forcibly annex Ukraine. The United States did quite a bit more than immediately condemn the invasion in the strongest possible terms and move to ignite a global sanctions campaign.
The Biden Administration — outspokenly, and in the face of great criticism and skepticism from the international press and other world leaders — insisted for weeks leading up to Moscow’s ultimate invasion of Ukraine that Putin was moving military forces into position for imminent attack.
The satellite imagery was hard to ignore; everything the Russian army was doing in the way of staging was visible to the countless number of government and corporate-owned satellites encircling the globe.
Nevertheless, Putin hotly denied the charge, openly mocking Biden and insisting Russian troop movements near the Ukraine border were merely regularly scheduled training exercises.
Nevertheless, he persisted.
When Putin finally did move on Ukraine, Biden was vindicated, but there was hardly time to rest on his laurels — nor were those laurels particularly restful. Warning of an invasion isn’t preventing one.
On February 17, Brittney Griner was arrested at the Moscow airport on drug charges. On February 24, 2022, the Russian military invaded Ukraine.
And with that, the charmed life of celebrity athlete Brittney Griner ended. The life of Brittney Griner — a Russian prison camp inmate and political prisoner — began.
Though Moscow denies the charge that Griner is a political prisoner, as it once denied preparing to invade Ukraine, most authorities consider Griner wrongfully detained.
“The State Department in May designated her as wrongfully detained, moving her case under the supervision of its Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator,” reported the Chicago Sun-Times on June 20.
Brittney Griner was in the wrong place at the wrong time; Putin obviously couldn’t pass up an opportunity to seize such a high-profile American citizen.
As the war in Ukraine raged, and the U.S. continued to lead the sanctions charge against Russia in the months that followed, Brittney Griner began her long and painful slog through the Russian criminal justice system.
On July 1, Griner’s trial began. As Independence Day dawned, Griner wrote a direct appeal for help to President Joe Biden.
“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” the WNBA basketball star wrote in a direct appeal to U.S. President Joe Biden on July 4, 2022. “I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other detainees.”
“Please do all you can to bring us home,” Brittney Griner begged the President.
“On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those men who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran,” read Griner’s letter, passed to U.S. officials through her legal representatives. “It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year.”
“As I sit 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,” she confessed.
“I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you,” Griner told President Biden. “I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. I miss my wife! 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.”
Two days after Brittney Griner’s heartbreaking July 4 letter begging President Joe Biden for help, Cherelle Griner received a call from Biden.
“The President called Cherelle to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world,” said the White House in a statement.
Other attempts were being made on Griner’s behalf as well, including by former Governor Bill Richardson, who traveled to Moscow in July to try and negotiate her release.
“Time to bring Brittney Griner Home,” begged the Editorial Board of the Boston Globe on July 18, 2022.
“U.S. offers convicted arms trafficker in prisoner swap with Russia for WNBA star Brittney Griner, per report,” wrote Isabel Gonzalez for CBS on July 27, 2022.
Instead of being released, however, Griner was found guilty a month later and sentenced to 9 years in prison.
Still, Griner’s case seemed to be somewhat hopeful. Obviously, diplomatic backchannels were swarming with government officials trying to bring Brittney home.
“Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov says Kremlin ‘ready to discuss’ Griner prisoner swap,” reported The Hill on August 8, 2022.
On October 25, 2022, VOA reported: “Brittney Griner’s Appeal Rejected; Sentence to Include Time Served.”
It was a terrible blow to Griner’s family, friends, and teammates. Since October, things have gone from bad to worse for Griner.
In mid-November, Russian officials gave the Griner family a faint glimmer of hope.
“We haven’t found common ground yet, but, undoubtedly, Viktor Bout is among those being discussed, and obviously we are hoping for a positive result,” Putin’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian news agencies. “The Americans are showing certain activity and we are working on this through appropriate channels.”
The glimmer of hope was short-lived: The U.S. was quick to tamp down such talk.
“We are not going to comment on the specifics of any proposals other than to say that we have made a substantial offer that the Russian Federation has consistently failed to negotiate in good faith,” said U.S. officials in a terse response. “The U.S. Government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with the Russian government.”
“The Russian government’s failure to seriously negotiate on these issues in the established channel, or any other channel for that matter, runs counter to its public statements,” the statement concluded.
It was a dash of cold water on hopes Griner might be home for Christmas.
Brittney Griner, the political prisoner, spent Thanksgiving serving hard time in a Russian penal colony as her wife and family mourned the holiday without her.
“US State Department aware of Brittney Griner’s whereabouts at Russian penal colony,” a State Department spokesperson told CNN.
Aware the U.S. State Department might be. But, are they any closer to bringing Brittney home?
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)