Image Source: Getty / Mike Mattina
Brittney Griner, an American basketball player for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, could have a release date pretty soon. On Wednesday, July 27, CNN reported that the Biden administration offered to release Viktor Bout, an imprisoned Russian arms dealer in exchange for Griner and another American detainee, Paul Whelan.
“We communicated a substantial offer that we believe could be successful based on a history of conversations with the Russians,” a senior official told CNN. “We communicated that a number of weeks ago, in June.”
Griner has been in Russia since February awaiting trial. She was first detained at a Moscow-area airport after Russian officials claimed they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil (or hash oil, containing cannabis, which is illegal in Russia) in her luggage. Her detention was extended repeatedly pending her criminal trial, which began July 1.
In May, the US government classified Griner’s detention as a wrongful detainment, which means that “the U.S. government has determined she is being used as a political pawn and as a result, is engaging in negotiations for her release, regardless of the legal process,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, told the New York Times. (The Russian government, however, continues to deny that the case is politically motivated.) ESPN also noted that this classification meant that the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens would be leading the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release. Carstens was a key diplomat in ensuring the release of formerly detained US citizen Trevor Reed from Russia, per an April 28 CNN report.
Even so, Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife, told The Associated Press at the time that she had “zero trust” in the US government in light of the way her wife’s detention has been handled thus far. Since being detained, officials have been able to check on Griner. During a March 23 CNN broadcast, US State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed that a US embassy official “has been granted consular access” to Griner. “Our official found Brittney Griner to be in good condition, and we will continue to do everything we can to see to it that she is treated fairly throughout this ordeal,” Price said.
In a June 29 interview with Rev. Al Sharpton, however, Cherelle said her wife “is struggling.” She also added, “She’s there terrified, she’s there alone.” The two have been able to communicate via letters, with Brittney telling Cherelle, “I’m gonna do my best to hold on until I can get home . . . I hope that that’s quick, cause I’m not OK.”
So what was Griner doing in Russia in the first place? Here’s everything we know about the situation, how Griner ended up in Russia, and when she’s expected to be released.
Why Was Brittney Griner in Russia?
Griner flew to Russia to play on the UMMC Ekaterinburg team. The 31-year-old has been a member of the Russian basketball team for several WNBA off-seasons. But this particular trip came at a tense time; Griner was detained shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine. The US State Department had issued a “Do Not Travel” advisory weeks earlier, citing the ongoing tension.
The two-time Olympian might have chosen to play overseas during this offseason for many different reasons — including to earn some extra cash. WNBA players typically earn between $60,000 and $229,000, while NBA players can earn upwards of $40 million. According to an Associated Press report, “half of the WNBA’s 144 players” went overseas during the 2022 offseason, with high-ranking athletes earning more than $1 million. WNBA athlete Liz Cambage said on NBA Today that she is able to earn “five to eight times more” by playing overseas.
Why Was Brittney Griner Detained?
In her first court appearance, Griner was accused of transporting a “significant amount” of cannabis oil, per The Washington Post. The charges allege that, before traveling to Russia in February, Griner “bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil,” as reported by Russian state news agency TASS.
In her July 7 hearing, Griner told the court that she did not purposely break the law. “I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner said, per Reuters. Griner’s lawyers also told Russian judges in another hearing that the cannabis was prescribed for medicinal use for “severe chronic pain,” per CNN.
“We continue to insist that, by indiscretion, in a hurry, she packed her suitcase and did not pay attention to the fact that substances allowed for use in the United States ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation,” her attorney Alexander Boykov stated, per CNN.
On June 27, Griner opened up about her initial detainment at the airport. She testified that she was forced to sign documents “without fully understanding what they included,” according to CNN. Griner said that she was not read her rights and that she tried to use Google translate on her phone to understand the documents, but “barely knew what was in them,” per CNN. After the first round of paperwork, Griner said she was later taken to another room, her phone was taken away, and she was forced to sign even more confusing documents with no explanation. “No attorney was present, Griner said,” according to CNN.
When Will Brittney Griner Be Released?
Griner’s detention has been extended several times since she was first detained in Russia, which has sparked outrage amongst her family, fellow players, fans, human rights organizations, and more. The #FreeBrittneyGriner movement has emerged on social media. And on June 22, several groups, including the National Organization for Women, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Urban League, and the National Action Network, banned together to send a letter to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, per the New York Times. The letter urged the administration “to make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely.”
Griner also previously pleaded to the president directly in a handwritten letter. She expressed that she was “terrified I might be here forever,” per CNN. “I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American detainees…” Griner went on to say. “Please do all you can to bring us home.”
Well, it looks like the administration is officially taking action, putting an “substantial offer” of exchange on the table, per CNN.
The administration official that spoke to CNN did not comment on the specifics of the “substantial offer,” but said that it was communicated weeks ago in June. CNN reported that the deal would involve the exchange of Viktor Bout (a Russian arms trafficker serving 25 years in a US prison) for the release of Griner and another American detainee, Paul Whelan.
The official told CNN that it was in Russia’s court to be responsive to the offer, “yet at the same time that does not leave us passive, as we continue to communicate the offer at very senior levels.'”
The source also stated: “It takes two to tango. We start all negotiations to bring home Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained with a bad actor on the other side. We start all of these with somebody who has taken a human being American and treated them as a bargaining chip,” per CNN.
Griner’s detention comes amid US sanctions against Russia following their invasion of Ukraine. At the beginning of Griner’s detention, Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro deemed Russia’s decision to detain the athlete to be a political move, tweeting, “I’m closely monitoring reports of Texan @brittneygriner‘s detention in Russia. This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning US citizens . . . US citizens are not political pawns.”
The basketball star is reportedly sharing a cell with two inmates who “had no previous convictions and are charged with drug-related articles,” according to a March statement from Ekaterina Kalugina, a member of Public Monitoring Commission, per NBC.
What Is Hash Oil?
Hash oil is extracted from cannabis, an illegal substance in Russia. Under Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code, someone who commits an offense related to the “illegal acquisition, storage, transportation, making or processing of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances or analogues thereof” could face up to 10 years in prison.
— Additional reporting by Alexis Jones and Lauren Mazzo