On June 27, Olympic gold medalist and WNBA star Brittney Griner was ordered to stand trial in Moscow starting July 1. Griner is accused of having vape cartridges with traces of hashish oil for which she could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted on charges of large-scale transportation of drugs.
Griner was seen June 27, in handcuffs, in photos taken by the AP, as she entered her preliminary hearing. At the closed hearing in the suburban Moscow court, Griner’s detention was extended again, past the original July 2 date to December 20.
As PGN reported, on February 17, Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport less than a week before Russia invaded Ukraine,
but her detention wasn’t even revealed until March 5. At that time Russia’s Federal Customs Service described the charge against Griner to Russia 24, Russia’s main state-owned news channel. “A criminal case has been opened against an American citizen under section 2 of 229 YK RF (Russian law) for smuggling of a significant amount of drugs,” Irina Begisheva of the Main Directorate for the Fight Against Smuggling of the Federal Customs Service told Russia 24.
Two months later the U.S. State Department has declared her arrest a “wrongful detention.”
“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the U.S government,” the U.S. State Department said to PGN. “The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner.”
That change in status in May was thought by security experts and those familiar with Russian manipulation of high profile detainees, to improve Griner’s chances of release and to signal that, as PGN has previously reported, the star player has been falsely accused.
Yet Griner, who plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury in the U.S., is still detained in Russia with her status increasingly appearing to be that of political prisoner. Griner had worked in Russia for years; she was well aware of the country’s stringent drug laws. Also suspicious is that rather than charge Griner with simple possession, which would have at most caused the star, who had won five championships for her Russian team, to be ejected from Russia, Griner was charged with drug smuggling–a far more serious offense.
ESPN reports that “Fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in the U.S., acquittals can be overturned.”
Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard told reporters after photos of Griner were published that “It was good to see her in some of those images, but it’s tough. Every time’s a reminder that their teammate, their friend, is wrongfully imprisoned in another country.”
Nygaard said, “It’s tough on our team. It is good to see her. See how she’s doing? I don’t know if she’s doing OK.”
On June 26, WNBA player Breanna Stewart tweeted, “It has been 129 days since our friend, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia. It is time for her to come home. @WhiteHouse, we are paying attention and we are counting on you. #WeAreBG”
But PGN got little information from the State Department on June 29 about what is being done to gain Griner’s release.
In comments attributable to a State Department spokesperson, PGN was told that “We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas. The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner.”
Rumors of a prisoner swap have swirled for weeks in Russian news media. Russia wants to swap for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, known as the Merchant of Death. In 2011, Bout was convicted in a Manhattan federal court of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization, and was sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment.
When asked what was being done to facilitate Griner’s release and if rumors of a prisoner swap were true, the State Department spokesperson said, “The U.S. government will continue to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner and her family. We will continue to press for her release.”
PGN also asked about the incident last week when a call between Griner and her wife Cherelle for the couple’s fourth wedding anniversary did not go through as arranged.
Cherelle Griner told MSNBC host Joy Ann Reid that Brittney Griner tried to call her wife 11 times through the American embassy in Russia as arranged, but that the couple were never able to talk because there was no one staffing the phone at the embassy.
Brittney and Cherelle Griner have not spoken since Griner’s arrest.
“I was distraught. I was hurt. I was done, fed up,” Cherelle Griner told The Associated Press in an interview. “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. Because it just knocked me out. I wasn’t well, I’m still not well.”
Cherelle Griner said a contact in the U.S. government had apologized to her for the error. She said she’s since learned that the one number Brittney Griner had been told to dial typically processes calls from prisoners on Mondays through Fridays but not weekends.
“But mind you,” Cherelle Griner said in the interview, “this phone call had been scheduled for almost two weeks — with a weekend date.”
Cherelle Griner added: “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.”
The State Department spokesperson told PGN, “We deeply regret that Brittney Griner was unable to speak with her wife because of a logistical error.”
Noting the gaunt look on Griner in the photos taken at her preliminary hearing, PGN asked about Griner’s health and if she had been seen by anyone in the embassy or State Department. The spokesperson replied that “A consular officer visited Brittney Griner in detention on May 19, 2022” — six weeks ago.
Cherelle Griner has asked to speak to President Biden as other families of detainees have done, but there are no plans for such a meeting at this time.
As of June 29, it has been 132 days since Griner’s arrest. On December 30, if she remains in detention that long, it will be 316 days of wrongful detention.