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Brittney Griner at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo

‘She's an amazing soul’ American basketball star Brittney Griner has been in a Russian prison for over four months. Is her release on the horizon?

Source: Meduza
Brittney Griner at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo
Brittney Griner at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo
Action Press / Vida Press

Like many WNBA players, American basketball star Brittney Griner usually plays in foreign leagues during the American off-season to supplement the relatively low salary she makes in the United States. In mid-February, Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for allegedly carrying cannabis vape cartridges in her luggage. The U.S. State Department has since declared her “wrongfully detained,” but pressure is growing on the American authorities to do more to hasten her release.

31-year-old Brittney Griner is one of the best basketball players in the world. A WNBA champion, NCAA champion, and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Griner has been called the “Tom Brady of women's basketball.” Still, like many women’s basketball players, Griner often goes abroad to keep playing during the American off season for financial reasons; the WNBA’s average base salary, according to the Washington Post, is $130,000 per year, while men in the NBA make up to $40 million.

“In Russia, I make seven figures. On a WNBA salary, you have to either live very frugally or find another way to earn. If you only play in the WNBA, you have to find another job: either a job in TV or as a college coach or at a summer camp,” Griner told the Yekaterinburg-based news site in 2019.

Griner has doubtless earned her high salary in Russia: she’s won the Russian Cup six times and the Euroleague twice, been named the Russia Cup’s best player three times, and won the title of EuroLeague Final Four MVP once.

Brittney Griner at the Russian Cup. 2018
Vova Zhabrikov / URA.RU / TASS

In early March, the world learned that Griner had been arrested by the Russian authorities; the arrest itself, however, happened weeks earlier, on February 17. That day, Griner had flown from the U.S. to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. As she was going through customs, sniffer dogs reportedly reacted to her luggage or her luggage. After a thorough search, Griner was arrested. Two weeks later, Russia’s Federal Customs Service released a statement in which they claimed Griner had had vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her possession.

The Russian authorities opened a criminal case against Griner for “smuggling drugs in a significant amount,” a charge for which she could face up to 10 years in prison. Griner is currently being held in a single-person cell in a remand prison near Moscow. She’s set to have a preliminary hearing on Monday.

Losing patience

According to ESPN, in the initial months after Brittney Griner’s arrest, the U.S. authorities were hoping the situation would resolve itself with minimal outside involvement and Griner would be released promptly. The U.S. State Department reportedly requested that not even Griner’s teammates comment publicly on the situation.

By early May, however, it was clear that Griner wouldn’t be released anytime soon, and the State Department declared her “wrongfully detained,” though they didn’t specify what violation Russia had committed, as transporting cannabis oil is indeed illegal in Russia. Neither Griner nor her representative have commented on whether she actually did have cannabis oil in her luggage.

After the new classification, US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens was put in charge of the case. The Russian authorities, meanwhile, don’t consider her a hostage, and have pushed back on the designation.

Still, negotiations between the two countries seem to have already begun. On May 12, TASS reported that Griner may be exchanged for Viktor Bout, a Russian businessman who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in the U.S. in 2012 for illegal arms trafficking. Bout has denied the charges.

The extension of Griner’s arrest. May 2022
Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Griner isn’t the only American candidate for a prisoner exchange with Russia. In June 2021, RT reported that 17 U.S. citizens were being held in Russian penal colonies and remand prisons. One of the most famous is Paul Whelan, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on espionage charges. Other prisoners include former diplomat Mark Vogel, who was accused of drug smuggling after he was caught at Sheremetyevo with 17 grams of medical marijuana prescribed to him by an American doctor after he underwent spinal surgery.

As it’s become clearer that Griner may not be released anytime soon, politicians, activists, and famous athletes have begun demanding her release. The majority of the statements have been directed at the U.S. government, as many Americans are unhappy with how little the authorities have done so far to help Griner.

Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, has been one of the government’s most outspoken critics. After the Russian authorities agreed to let the couple speak over the phone on June 18, their third wedding anniversary, Brittney said she tried 11 times to call the number given to her by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, but nobody answered. The State Department later blamed a “logistical error” on their end: nobody was manning the designated phone at the Embassy that day. After the incident, Cherelle spoke out:

I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now. 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 OK. 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 two are currently staying in touch through letters. Los Angeles Sparks forward Amanda Zahui B. said of Brittney, “She jokes in her letters. I don't know how she does it with what she's going through. She's an amazing soul. She brings light in a situation like this. I don't think a lot of people could manage to do that.”

Story by Alexandra Serova

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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