It’s been 139 days since Olympic gold medalist and WNBA all-star Brittney Griner was detained in Russia February 17 at an airport outside Russia. Griner, who has played basketball in Russia for UMMC Ekaterinburg since the 2014-2015 season, has been accused of drug smuggling for allegedly having vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. The drug smuggling charge as opposed to a possession charge turns Griner into a drug kingpin under the law.
Griner went on trial July 1 in a Moscow suburb.
I have been reporting on this story since March 5 when Griner’s detention was revealed. I’ve been in constant contact with the U.S. State Department about her case as well as attempting to get commentary from Russia, with only intermittent success. I have spoken about her case on Canadian and British radio programs.
Throughout the months of Griner’s detention, I have queried in various venues: Why is Brittney Griner still in Russia?
I have yet to get an answer from either government.
It took the U.S. government well over two months to change Griner’s status to “wrongful detention.” It took the WNBA over a month to make a statement. The NBA has avoided making any statement at all.
But as WNBA Mercury Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard said on July 5 to TODAY, “If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?”
Nygaard said, “It’s a statement about the value of women. It’s a statement about the value of a black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person. All of those things. We know it, and so that’s what hurts a little more.”
We know it’s true.
On Independence Day, a hand-written letter by Griner was delivered to President Biden. In it she expressed her fears she could be detained in Russia indefinitely.
Griner wrote, “As I sit here 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 continued, “I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you.”
Griner, who has been a long-time lesbian activist with a focus on LGBTQ youth, said, “I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore.”
The crushing impact of her long isolation was revealed in the end, as she wrote, “I miss my wife! I miss my family! 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.”
Griner’s wife Cherelle has been critical of President Biden and the State Department, especially after a fourth wedding anniversary phone call — planned for two weeks — did not go through. Cherelle has been speaking out to various media asking why more hasn’t been done to secure her wife’s release.
On July 6, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris finally spoke by phone with Cherelle Griner.
According to a White House statement, the president and vice president “spoke today with Cherelle Griner, the wife of Brittney Griner who is wrongfully detained in Russia under intolerable circumstances.”
The statement continues, “The President called Cherelle to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible.”
Biden also read Cherelle Griner a draft of the letter he is sending to Brittney, in response to Brittney Griner’s handwritten letter to him.
The White House stated that Biden “offered his support to Cherelle and Brittney’s family, and he committed to ensuring they are provided with all possible assistance while his administration pursues every avenue to bring Brittney home.”
According to the White House statement, the July 6 call “follows calls that National Security Advisor Sullivan and Secretary of State Blinken have had with Cherelle in recent weeks and this past weekend.”
Biden also directed his national security team to “remain in regular contact with Cherelle and Brittney’s family to keep them updated on efforts to secure the release of their loved ones as quickly as possible.”
“He takes this to heart,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “He takes this job very seriously, especially when it comes to bringing home U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained.”
A guilty verdict for Griner who will be on trial until December 20, could carry a sentence of 10 years. Fewer than 1% of Russian defendants are acquitted, according to the Associated Press.
Throughout Griner’s detention, legal experts have asserted that her trial would be a “sham” trial and a “show” trial and that Griner was being used as a political pawn in the fraught climate between Russia and the U.S. over the Ukraine war.
None of which explains why Griner is still in Russia. Nygaard’s comments certainly seem accurate given how many months Griner has been detained. Is there any similar circumstance in which a famous American — a global superstar in Griner’s case — has been detained in another country with no response from their government over months?
Why, when video of Russian state TV showed homophobic video of Griner in March, did the State Department offer only tepid “we’re working to get all detainees out” assurances instead of speaking out about the way in which Griner’s lesbianism was being made part of the case against her?
No one disputes that diplomacy and negotiations take time, but why did it take 10 weeks for the State Department to even declare Griner’s detention wrongful? Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tweeted to bring Brittney home in March.
Also in March a former hostage and American journalist said that accepting Russia’s statements about Griner instead of pushing back could extend her detention by months if not years.
The news that Biden has finally spoken to Cherelle Griner and written to Brittney Griner is all good and peak Biden comforter in chief. But as Griner’s trial continues July 8, we are still asking, with no answers still from Biden or the State Department: why is Brittney Griner still in Russia? And when is she coming home?