Brittney Griner begins eighth month in Russian prison

Screenshot from Russian television.

The 2022 WNBA Finals began Sept. 11. Brittney Griner wasn’t there for the tip-off. The former WNBA champion, Phoenix Mercury star and Olympic gold medalist has been in a Russian prison since February 17 — seven long months.  

Prior to the finals, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert called Brittney Griner’s wrongful detainment in Russia “unacceptable.” Engelbert said “I recently received a handwritten letter from BG, and I am so inspired by her courage in the face of enormous adversity.” 

She added, “We are fully focused on getting her home safely, and she remains such an important part of the WNBA family.”

Engelbert said Griner closed her letter saying, “I’m staying strong.” 

“Brittney is stressed and very much concerned with the future,” her lawyer Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners, told PEOPLE magazine Sept. 13.

“We need to use every legal opportunity that we have, and appeal is one of these opportunities,” Blagovolina said.

The appeal process could take several months, said Griner’s other attorney, Alexander Boykov, from the Moscow Legal Center. “It’s not very fast.”

Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on February 17 after Russian authorities said they found vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner has worked in Russia during the WNBA off-season since 2014 and has led her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, to consecutive championships. 

Griner’s trial on drug smuggling charges began July 1 and pleaded guilty on July 7 — a plea her attorneys hoped would allow her to be released in a prisoner swap. Griner said in her plea and again in court, that she had packed quickly to leave for Russia and had no criminal intent in bringing the vape cartridges into the country. She said she had made “an honest mistake under stress.” 

Griner testified for the first time July 27. She explained that when she was initially detained at the Moscow airport, an interpreter translated only small portions of what transpired. She was instructed to sign documents which she thought would release her to catch her connecting flight to Ekaterinburg. 

Griner was convicted August 4 and sentenced to nine and a half years in prison — just under the maximum allowed by law — on charges of smuggling drugs into the country. After the trial, Griner’s attorney Maria Blagovolina had said the sentence was “absolutely unreasonable,” and that she and Griner’s legal team will file an appeal as soon as possible. The U.S. Embassy’s chargé d’affaires Elizabeth Rood called the verdict “a miscarriage of justice.”

At the time of Griner’s conviction, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement in which he said that the “conviction and sentencing by a Russian court of U.S. citizen Brittney Griner… further compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention. This step puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns.”

Blinken also said, “Nothing about [this] decision changes our determination that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained, and we will continue working to bring Brittney and fellow wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan home. This is an absolute priority of mine and the Department’s.” 

Six weeks later, Griner remains in prison. The State Department offered few details in response to a series of questions from PGN. On Sept. 13, a State Department spokesperson in the State Department Press Office told PGN, “The U.S. government continues to urge Russia to release wrongfully detained Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.”

They noted, “As Secretary Blinken said, ‘There was a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal.’”

The spokesperson said, “We can’t get into further details,” when asked about the proposed prisoner swap made in June.

The spokesperson asserted, “Nothing about the decision changes our determination that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained, and we will continue working to bring Brittney and fellow wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan home.”

When asked how Griner was and if U.S. representatives had met with her, the spokesperson said, “U.S. Embassy officials last spoke with Ms. Griner at length during her court hearing on August 4.”

They added, “We are closely engaged on this case and in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team. Embassy officials have been able to speak with her during her hearings and she confirmed that she is doing as well as can be expected.”

On Sept. 14, the Moscow Times reported that former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, known for his work negotiating the release of prisoners detained abroad, was “in Russia meeting with unidentified Russian leaders in Moscow.” 

The rumored meetings were widely reported in U.S. media, but details of the meetings were not given and Moscow Times reported “President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday that ‘there were no meetings at the Kremlin’ when asked to comment about Richardson’s reported trip.”

On Sept. 13, when asked about Richardson’s trip, a senior Biden administration official told CNN that anyone “who’s going to Russia is going as a private citizen and they don’t speak for the U.S. government.”

In a previous interview with the AP, Richardson expressed hope that a “two-for-two prisoner swap” could be negotiated. Richardson said at the time, “it’s proportional — two-for two.”

On Aug. 9, PGN had asked the State Department about Richardson’s possible involvement, saying, “Bill Richardson spoke out about the case on the Sunday talk shows. Is he working closely with State on this case?” The spokesperson at that time declined comment and directed PGN to Secretary Blinken’s statement.

The Richardson Center for Global Engagement, which Richardson founded, issued a statement declining to comment on his visit. The Richardson Center had not responded to PGN’s request for comment at press time.

In a cover story for Rolling Stone released on Sept. 12, NBA champion Steph Curry, who has been vocal in his support for Griner, says Biden officials rebuffed his offer to help gain Griner’s release. Curry says he reached out to contacts in the Biden administration to offer assistance but says that he was turned down.

“They were telling us, ‘Don’t say anything,”’ Curry said.

During the NBA Finals, Curry raised awareness of Griner’s detainment in an interview with ESPN’s Malika Andrews.

“It’s an unfortunate situation, it’s a tragedy… She needs to be home. She needs to be safe. She needs to be with her family,” Curry said.

Curry called for Griner’s release alongside Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith while hosting the ESPY awards. 

“We cannot stop fighting for her,” Curry said at the ceremony. “We cannot stop believing for her, and we will not stop hoping for the day when we can welcome her home safely.”