Griner’s detention in Russia just days before the Ukraine invasion is a woeful tale of crime, punishment, politics, and bad timing.
WNBA all-star and Olympic athlete Brittney Griner’s life changed forever on February 17, 2022. A frequent Russian league player in the off-season, Griner was traveling through the Moscow airport when Russian authorities allegedly found marijuana vape cartridges in her suitcase.
It might have been a fairly minor charge, and under normal circumstances, Brittney Griner would have probably been home by now.
If Russia hadn’t invaded the Ukraine on February 24.
In the weeks leading up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it must be remembered, President Biden was already warning the world of an imminent attack- while Putin denied any such intention vehemently and often. On February 17, however, when Griner was arrested, Putin already knew he might soon need a bargaining chip.
While the Russian government has denied that Griner is a political prisoner, insisting she is being held on criminal charges, no one much believes the Russian government this side of the Ukraine conflict.
“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.
“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner 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,” she 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 Russian 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.”
“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.”
“BG is probably the strongest person that I know, so she doesn’t say words like that lightly,” Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, said of the letter. “That means she truly is terrified that she may never see us again. And you know I share those same sentiments… I’m sure she was like, ‘I’m gonna write him now because…my family has tried and to no avail. So I’m going to do it myself.’”
Cherelle Griner was no doubt referring to a recently botched phone call scheduled between Brittney Griner and her family. The call, which was scheduled weeks ahead for Saturday, June 18, was to be Griner’s first opportunity to speak with her loved ones since being detained.
Unfortunately, the call never happened.
Initially, Griner’s wife and family despaired that the Russian government had prevented Brittney Griner from calling in a bit of cruel and unusual punishment. The truth was far more mundane, but no less heartbreaking and infuriating for Griner’s family.
The Russian government had allowed Brittney Griner to call- 11 times during the scheduled appointment time. It being a Saturday, no one was working on the U.S. State Department side; the office wasn’t staffed to answer and forward the call.
“I was distraught,” Cherelle Griner told the Associated Press on June 20, two days after the botched call. “I was hurt. I was done, fed up.”
“I’m pretty sure I texted BG’s agent and was like: ‘I don’t want to talk to anybody. It’s going to take me a minute to get my emotions together, and just tell everybody I’m unavailable right now,’” Cherelle Griner said. “Because it just knocked me out. I wasn’t well. I’m still not well.”
“I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now,” Cherelle Griner continued. “If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home? Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call.”
“This was such a big moment because this would have been the first time where I truly could tell if she’s okay,” Cherelle Griner told the AP. “This would have been the first time for me to actually just hear her in real time and to truly know if she’s okay or to know if she’s seconds away from not being in existence anymore.”
The State Department has since apologized for the error.
Two days after Brittney Griner’s heartbreaking July 4 letter begging President Joe Biden for help, Cherelle Griner did receive 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. “He also read her a draft of the letter the President is sending to Brittney Griner today.”
On July 7, Brittney Griner pled guilty to the charges against her, setting the scene for the next stage of the negotiations process. Political analysts speculate Russia is angling to trade Griner and other Americans in a prisoner swap.
The latest development in the case was the announcement on July 9 that former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson is planning a trip to Russia for the purposes of negotiating Griner’s release and that of American Paul Whelan, who is also being wrongfully detained.
Richardson played a central part in the April 2022 release of Trevor Reed, the former U.S. Marine imprisoned in Russia on drug smuggling charges similar to those Griner is facing. Reed spent two and half years in Russian prison before being released in April.
Richardson, through his foundation, has helped negotiate the release of other wrongfully detained Americans languishing in prisons from North Korea to Iran.
“NSC leadership are in touch with Bill Richardson,” said White House National Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson. “We appreciate his commitment to getting Americans home and are pursuing the release of Brittney and Paul through government channels.”
“We asked the Richardson Center to help and I’m encouraged that he might be going,” Cherelle Griner told ABC in a statement.
The Biden Administration, according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, intends to, “to everything that we can to bring home Brittney Griner safely, and to also make sure that we bring Paul Whelan back home as well.”
Godspeed, Brittney and Paul.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)