Brittney Griner spends birthday in Russian prison

Screenshot from Russian television.

On October 18, Brittney Griner turned 32 in a Russian prison. In a statement to her fans and supporters shared by her attorneys, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, Griner said, “Thank you everyone for fighting so hard to get me home. All the support and love are definitely helping me.” 

On Oct. 3, a Russian court set Oct. 25 as the date for the WNBA basketball star and Olympic gold medalist’s appeal against her 9.5 year prison sentence for “drug smuggling.”

Griner has been in prison since her wrongful detention February 17, when she was taken into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. Her trial began in July and she was convicted on August 4.

Blagovolina said, “Not only this is her birthday in jail away from her family, teammates and friends, but she is very stressed in anticipation of the appeal hearing on 25 October.”

In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Oct. 11, President Biden, who has long reiterated the U.S. stance that Griner is wrongfully detained and wrongfully convicted, addressed her captivity while discussing Russian President Vladimir Putin. Biden said that although he has no plans to meet with Putin, he would to discuss the status of Griner and her detention. 

“Look, I have no intention of meeting with him,” Biden said. “But for example, if he came to me at the G-20 and said, ‘I want to talk about the release of Griner,’ I’d meet with him. I mean, it would depend.”

On Oct. 12, ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Mary Bruce asked Biden for clarification in a press gaggle outside the White House. Bruce asked, “You said you would be open to meeting with Vladimir Putin to discuss Brittney Griner. Have you seen any movement on that front?”

Biden said, “Not with Putin.”

On Oct. 16 a Kremlin official, Yury Ushakov, a close aide to Russian Putin, told the Russian media outlet Rossiya-1, that Griner’s case “isn’t a major priority for Russia,” and said the U.S. “has other issues to focus on.” 

Ushakov said in the interview, “In this tense situation, I think that he [Biden] is thinking first and foremost about the upcoming midterm elections so he keeps emphasizing the need to bring back home the basketball player who was detained for drug smuggling. However, it’s not the main issue that we are concerned about.”

PGN contacted the U.S. State Department on Oct. 18 for further details on Griner’s case. PGN said, “The prison where Griner is being held is notoriously terrible. Are there any updates on Griner’s health and well-being?”

PGN also said, “There have been news reports via Griner’s wife Cherelle that she fears she will never be released. In previous responses to me, State has said she has not been seen by any embassy personnel since Aug. 4 — her conviction date. Is that still true?” 

PGN noted that the paper is one of the only national outlets maintaining a beat on Griner and said “Any updates, even on background, would be welcome. As Russia is ratcheting up the war in Ukraine and midterms approach, concerns for Griner from her family, friends and fans have increased.”

A State Dept spokesperson responded, saying, “The U.S. government continues to urge Russia to release wrongfully detained U.S. citizens Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.”

They told PGN, “U.S. Embassy officials last spoke with Ms. Griner during her court hearing on August 4. Embassy officials last spoke to Griner on the phone on October 18″ and added that “The U.S. Embassy requests consular access for ALL detained U.S. citizens on a routine basis.”

The spokesperson said that “Representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow plan to be in attendance at her October 25 hearing. We cannot comment on her legal team’s plans.”

When pressed in a second request about Biden’s comment to Tapper, a spokesperson told PGN, “Thanks for the question. On your questions about President Biden’s comments, we would refer you to the White House.” 

The Oct. 18 White House press briefing, a transcript of which is posted on the White House website, details this exchange between reporters and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, herself an out lesbian. 

Jean-Pierre was asked toward the end of the briefing, “Has the U.S. had any consular access to Brittney Griner since the beginning of August? As of last week, they had not. Have they in the course of the last week?”

Jean-Pierre replied, “So I want to be very clear here because this is important. This is important to the President. This is important to this administration. Getting Brittney home, getting Paul Whelan home is a priority for this administration. They are wrongfully detained, and they should be home today.”

She continued, “And so the President, his National Security Council, the State Department is going to do everything that we can to get them home. I don’t have anything else to preview for you at this time or to update you, but it is a — it is a — it is — continues — continues to be a priority for this administration.”

The reporter said, “So, obviously, there’s frustration about this. So you can’t say if in the last week there’s been any access to her, right?”

Jean-Pierre said, “ So we’re going to continue to work through our channels that we have with Russia on — on getting her home, getting Paul home.”

The reporter pressed the Press Secretary further, “But in terms of access, we can’t — we presently can’t say? I guess, how do we — how do we tell the American people — do we know that she is well? Do we know that her condition is well right now? When is the last time we got some indication of her circumstances? It’s her birthday.”

Jean-Pierre said, “No, it’s a very good question. Don’t have any — don’t have any update on you — for you on that piece. What I can say: It is a priority. You’ve heard this President. You’ve heard from Secretary Blinken. You’ve heard from the National Security Advisor. And we are going to continue to talk through our channels until this moves from a priority to a reality.”

She added, “We’ve had success, as you know, with bringing Americans home from Russia, from Afghanistan, from Venezuela, from Burma, from Haiti, West Africa, and more. So we have had success in doing this. We’re going to keep — we’re going to be steadfast on making sure that Brittney and Paul come home.”

On Oct. 6, Griner’s wife, Cherelle, told CBS This Morning, about speaking with wife Brittney, that it was “the most disturbing call I’ve ever experienced.” 

She said Griner “fears being moved to a labor camp.”

Cherelle Griner also said, “She’s very afraid about being left and forgotten in Russia,” and added that the WNBA star told her in the call that she felt “like my life just doesn’t matter.”

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