UPDATED: 8:26 a.m., Aug. 15, 2022
Brittney Griner’s fight to make it back to the U.S continues.
Lawyers for detained basketball star Brittney Griner have filed an appeal against her nine-year Russian prison sentence. According to NPR, the star’s lawyer Maria Blagovolina told Russian news agencies that they had filed an appeal after the athlete was slammed with a lengthy prison sentence for drug possession. The terms of the appeal still remain unclear. After the ruling, Blagovolina and her co-counsel Alexander Boykov argued that the 9-year sentence was “excessive and that in similar cases defendants have received an average sentence of about five years, with about a third of them granted parole.”
In court, Griner admitted that she had the canisters of cannabis oil in her luggage, but the olympian said she had packed them in a hurry and that she had no criminal intent. Her defense team also presented written statements from medical officials showing that she was prescribed cannabis to treat pain from a previous injury.
A glimmer of hope still remains for Griner, who may be able to return to the U.S. if Russian officials and the Biden Administration strike a deal for a potential prisoner swap. As previously reported, U.S. officials are currently in talks to trade Griner for Russian convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout.
On Sunday, a senior Russian diplomat revealed that exchange talks were underway.
“This quite sensitive issue of the swap of convicted Russian and U.S. citizens is being discussed through the channels defined by our presidents,” Alexander Darchiev, head of the Foreign Ministry’s North America department, told state news agency Tass. “These individuals are, indeed, being discussed. The Russian side has long been seeking the release of Viktor Bout. The details should be left to professionals, proceeding from the ‘do not harm’ principle.'”
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Earlier this month, a Russian judge slammed the WNBA basketball star with a 9-year prison sentence for bringing cannabis oil into the country. During her emotional apology, Griner plead with the court official for leniency, noting how the move was an “honest mistake,” due to packing in a hurry.
According to reports, Russian court officials said Griner deliberately committed the crime. In addition to her hefty prison sentence, the athlete is ordered to pay a fine of “1 million rubles, which is roughly $16,400,” CNN noted. Griner was arrested for possessing less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in her luggage at Sheremetyevo International Airport on February 17.
Standing in her metal courtroom cage, donning a cold solemn face, Griner shook her head with dismay as the dreadful proceeding was read. Lawyers for the former Pheonix Mercury star hope that the Biden Administration will strike a deal with the Russian government to conduct a prisoner exchange in order to free the Olympian. U.S. officials are currently in talks to trade Griner for Russian convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout.
Outside of the courthouse, Elizabeth Rood, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow called the harsh sentencing “a miscarriage of justice,” according to Yahoo Sports.
“Secretary of State Blinken, President Biden’s national security team and the entire American government remain committed to bringing Miss Griner home safely to her family, friends and loved ones,” she added.
Following the verdict, Griner’s attorneys released a joint statement, calling the ruling “absolutely unreasonable.”
“As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone regardless of nationality,” the statement read. “The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea. This contradicts the existing legal practice.”
Griner’s legal team plan on filing an appeal.
In a lengthy statement, President Biden reassured Americans that he was doing everything in his power to bring the star back to the U.S.
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” his statement read. “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
In the days leading up to the tense ruling, Griner’s wife Cherelle gave an update on her emotional well-being amid the fight to bring her loved one home.
“I am hopeful in knowing that the President read my wife’s letter and took the time to respond. I know BG will be able to find comfort in knowing she has not been forgotten,” Cherelle’s emotional Instagram post read. “I want to thank everyone who has fought so hard for BG. It means the world to my entire family as well as my wife…Please continue to pray for my family and all the other families of the wrongfully detained, as our pain remains active until our loved ones are brought home.”
On August 2, WNBA star Brittney Griner made her 7th appearance at the Khimki city courthouse, where her heated drug-smuggling trial took place. During Tuesday’s session, prosecutors claimed that the substance found in the athlete’s vape cartridges did not comply with Russian law. Griner’s defense team argued that the examination did not show the exact amount of THC in the oil.
The plan to get Griner home picked up momentum last week as the American basketball star finally testified in her drug possession trial in Russia on Thursday. Griner expressed to the court that she was not smuggling drugs and did not intend to break the law.
“I still don’t understand to this day how they ended up in my bags,” she told the court. “I didn’t have any intent to use or keep in my possession any substance that is prohibited in Russia.”
She assured the court she understood the Russian law that bans cannabis oil but said her possession was not purposeful.
“With them being accidentally in my bags, I take responsibility, but I did not intend to smuggle or plan to smuggle anything into Russia, Griner said.
She also told the court that during her arrest, she didn’t receive an adequate explanation of her rights, nor presented access to a lawyer and insisted she was a good person that always followed the rules.
“Nothing was ever explained to me thoroughly at all,” Griner said.
“The translations weren’t very good. I remember one time him receiving stacks of paper that he was supposed to translate to me, and he looked at them for a brief moment, and (his) exact words were: `Basically you are guilty.”’
Griner’s defense team presented testimonies from doctors to prove that she was medically prescribed cannabis in Arizona. Health officials said Griner used medical marijuana to help with pain from a previous injury to her “spine, ankle and knees, ” the New York Times noted. However, medical cannabis is not legal under Russian law.
Biden Administration offers Russia a deal
Though Griner’s trial is expected to continue into August, According to CNN, the White House has offered a prisoner exchange of Griner and fellow American detainee Paul Whelan for a Russian arms dealer who serving a 25-year sentence in the US. But According to CBS News, a Russian spokesperson has said there have been no agreements on any deals.
Some reports have said her trial is expected to end on Aug 5.
During proceedings on Tuesday, Griner’s defense team told the court that the cannabis in her possession at the time of her arrest was for medicinal use.
“The Russian public has to know, and the Russian court in the first place has to know, that it was not used for recreational purposes in the United States. It was prescribed by a doctor,” her lawyer told the court.
Griner’s defense team was also particular about expressing their argument to the court. They explained that although the cannabis was prescribed to Brittney by a doctor in America, she did not intend to bring it to Russia.
“We are not arguing that Brittney took it here as a medicine. We are still saying that she involuntarily brought it here because she was in a rush.”
Griner, who plead guilty to drug charges in court earlier this month, is staring down a 10-year prison sentence. Maria Zakharova, a representative from the Russian Foreign Ministry, told state media she believed the athlete’s detainment was justified.
“If a U.S. citizen was taken in connection with the fact that she was smuggling drugs, and she does not deny this, then this should be commensurate with our Russian local laws and not with those adopted in San Francisco, New York, and Washington,” she said. Zakharova argued that while certain parts of the U.S. have decriminalized marijuana, the same rules do not apply under Russian law.
Griner’s guilty plea came as a shock to many hoping for her swift release, but there appears to be a method behind the surprising move. The WNBA star’s law team hopes that Russian court officials will grant her leniency, according to CNN. Lawyers for Griner see a glimmer of hope, given that her drug test came back negative following her arrest in February.
While many assumed the Houston native was advised to enter a guilty plea, lawyers for the former Phoenix Mercury player said that she chose to plead guilty.
“She decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people,” a statement from Griner’s Russian legal team read. “Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance, and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence.” Her trial is expected to end at the beginning of August.
Former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed told NBC News that he believes the White House can move swiftly to get Griner and other political prisoners home from Russia. Reed was freed from a Russian prison in April after a prisoner exchange. He was arrested in 2019 for allegedly assaulting a Russian officer.
“I can’t say 100% what the White House is or is not doing — that’s obviously not public information, but, in my opinion, the White House has the ability to get them out extremely fast, and they clearly have chosen not to do that, he said during his interview with NBC News. “So no, in my opinion, they’re not doing enough.”
Biden signs executive order aimed at punishing captors of wrongfully detained Americans
On July 19, President Biden signed an executive order aimed at increasing the flow of communication and information to families of Americans detained abroad. The move came after the administration faced backlash for its slow response to Griner’s case. Additionally, the bill also imposes sanctions on criminals, terrorists, or government officials who hold Americans hostage without cause.
Under the new provision, government officials will now have the power to impose sanctions like visa revocations on parties accused of wrongfully detaining Americans. Biden hopes that the move will raise more awareness around the growing issue of hostage-taking and punishing captors. It’s unclear if the new order will result in Griner’s potential release, according to ESPN.
Earlier this month, news broke that former New Mexico Gov.Bill Richardson would be heading to help aid the process of getting Brittney Griner freed. According to ABC News, Richardson will be traveling to Moscow in ‘the next couple of weeks,’ to assist in negotiation talks after Griner pleaded guilty to drug possession charges.
This is not the first prisoner negotiation for Richardson. His organization, The Richardson Center for Global Engagement, helps negotiate for the release of prisoners and hostages held by hostile regimes or criminal organizations. He was also heavily involved in the prisoner exchange that brought U.S. Marine Trevor Reed home from Russia.
Although his latest trip to Russia to help Brittney Griner see freedom has not yet been confirmed by his organization, but say Griner’s family has reached out for support.
On July 5, Griner penned a letter to President Joe Biden from a Russian jail, expressing her fears about the possibility that she may never be free.
“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,” Griner wrote in the letter.
She pleaded guilty to a drug charge in a Russian court on July 7 but said she did not intentionally break the law. Some experts believe her guilty plea could be a strategy to get Griner a more lenient sentence.
She has been detained in Russia for over four months, and sadly this only seems like the beginning of a long battle for her freedom.
Biden and Cherelle Griner spoke by phone after the president called “to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible,” according to the White House statement. The president also read Cherelle Griner the letter he sent to Brittney Griner.
Richardson isn’t the only political leader who wants to travel to Russia to help Brittney. Rev. Al Sharpton has asked President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to arrange for him and a group of faith leaders to meet with the jailed WNBA star in Russia.
“I am deeply concerned for Brittney Griner’s physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing,” said Sharpton in a statement. “Today I’m urging President Biden and Secretary Blinken to bring myself and fellow faith leaders to Russia immediately so we can pray over Brittney in prison. She deserves to see the United States is doing something for her, so she can find the strength as this show trial goes on. Brittney’s family also deserves to hear from someone who has met with and spoken to her. Four months is too long for this to have gone on, and I ho
On July 1, Griner arrived at a court near Moscow to begin her trial. She is currently being detained at a pre-trial detention center north of Moscow. U.S. officials believe that Russia is using Griner as a negotiation tactic to pressure the Biden administration to trade for her freedom and that a guilty verdict is highly likely. They also don’t believe she will have a fair trial. Former resident legal adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Tom Firestone, told CNN that Griner’s trial will be nothing like U.S. trials.
“A trial there is not a trial in the U.S. sense — opening statements, jury selection, ‘call your first witness’ — none of that,” said Firestone.
Griner was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport on Feb 17, after officials from the Russian Customs Service found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison.
Griner was delivered more unfortunate news at her closed-door preliminary hearing in Khimkski, Russia on June 27. According to AP News, Russian officials extended the basketball star’s detention another six months until Dec. 20. Video footage captured the 31-year-old looking awry as she walked into the courthouse with two guards and a police canine on Monday. Griner declined to answer questions from reporters as she was led into the courtroom. The 6 foot 9 athlete’s trial is officially set to begin on July 1.
Earlier this month, the WNBA star’s pre-trial detention was extended by a Russian court through at least July 2. She has been detained for more than 100 days. The news of her extended detention came just hours after Griner’s Phoenix Mercury teammates met with the United States Department of State to discuss the status of Brittney Griner’s “wrongful detention” in Russia.
On April 27, calls grew louder for Griner’s release after President Joe Biden announced a prisoner swap deal to release a Russian convicted of drug trafficking in exchange for an American prisoner in Russia. After nearly three months of silence on Griner, on May 3, the Biden administration declared that Griner had been “wrongfully detained.” As such, the U.S. government would work more aggressively to secure her release even while the Russian legal case against Griner proceeds. But Brittney still sits in a Russian jail cell.
Griner is being detained in Russia as the country rages war against Ukraine. Although it’s unclear as to when she was taken into custody, the athlete, who plays as a center for the Pheonix Mercury, was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport after officials from the Russian Customs Service found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
According to the organization’s statement, “a working dog from the Sheremetyevo customs canine department detected the possible presence of narcotic substances” in the basketball star’s luggage as she attempted to pass through security screening, CNN noted. The agency also released a video of the incident to the public.
Thousands of fans and Griner’s family are pleading with Russian authorities to bring the 31-year-old back home safely amid the country’s invasion of Ukraine. Here’s everything we know about the situation so far.
Griner’s possible path back to the U.S.
In May, Russian state media claimed that they were in negotiation to free Griner in exchange for convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death.” Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison on conspiracy charges after he was accused of providing aid to terrorist organizations. However, State Department official Roger Carstens, who is helping to negotiate Griner’s release, declined to comment on the possibility of the swap.
There have also been rumors that the U.S. could be in talks with Russia to trade not only Griner but also former Marine Paul Whelan in exchange for Bout. Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison on espionage charges in 2018. During a recent interview with Jake Tapper, U.S. Secretary of State Atony Blinken refused to reveal information about the suspected trade.
“As a general proposition, Jake, I’ve got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home, and that includes Paul Whelan and that includes Brittney Griner. That includes people in a number of other countries,” Blinken said, before adding:
“I can’t comment in any detail on what we’re doing except to say this is an absolute priority.”
Back in May, the Texas native’s case was handed over to the office of the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA.) The department leads and coordinates the government’s diplomatic endeavors pertaining to the release of wrongfully detained prisoners overseas and other hostage-related matters.
Cherelle Griner Says the U.S. dropped the ball on a scheduled call with her wife
In an exclusive interview with AP News on June 20, Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, revealed that Brittney tried to call her nearly a dozen times for their fourth anniversary, but Embassy staff never connected the call due to a scheduling error. Cherelle hadn’t spoken to her wife in nearly four months.
“I was distraught. I was hurt. I was done, fed up. I’m pretty sure I texted BG’s agent and was like: ‘I don’t want to talk to anybody,'” she told the news outlet. “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 said she has grown increasingly frustrated by the U.S. government’s slow response to Griner’s case. She felt like the failed call was a snub given that she had coordinated almost two weeks in advance to have a scheduled chat with her wife. According to Cherelle, officials scheduled the call “with a weekend date,” although Embassy workers normally aren’t on call on the weekends.
“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,” she added.
Cherelle and Griner’s family hope to speak to President Biden to help expedite her release, but they are beginning to lose hope.
What was Griner doing in Russia?
During the WNBA off-season., Griner has been playing with the Russian women’s basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg for the last seven years. Her last game was on Jan. 29, just before the team took a two-week hiatus in early February for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments. Reports alleged that the Houston native may have been detained during that time. Griner scored big while playing with the Russian team, averaging 13.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. The star athlete reportedly makes over a million per season. She is also a two-time Olympic gold medalist and she has won a WNBA championship with the Phoenix Mercury.
What are Griner’s charges?
Griner is currently being held on drug charges. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison in Russia. The New York Times reported that Russian authorities have opened up a criminal case against Griner pertaining to “the large-scale transportation of drugs.” She is currently being held in custody as the investigation weighs on.
A petition has been created for the WNBA star’s release
Thanks to sports journalist Tamryn Spruill, thousands of people have signed a Change.org petition urging Griner’s swift and safe return to the U.S. As of March 7, the petition has received over 5,000 signatures.
Spruill, who does regular sports coverage of the WNBA, referred to Griner on the campaign’s website as “a beloved global citizen who has used her platform since her entry into the WNBA to help others.”
Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas released a statement about the issue during a press conference on March 5
“We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams, and the WNBA and NBA,” she said. “As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”
The Pheonix Mercury also issued a statement that said they continue to stand in solidarity with Griner amid her tough legal woes.
“We are aware of and are closely monitoring the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia. We remain in constant contact with her family, her representation, the W.N.B.A., and N.B.A. We love and support Brittney and at this time our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home,” the team’s statement read.
Brittney Griner’s wife has finally spoken out
On Mar 6., the star’s wife, Cherelle Griner, finally broke her silence about the heartbreaking situation. Cherelle thanked fans for all their love and support.
“Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me regarding my wife’s safe return from Russia. Your prayers and support are greatly appreciated,” she wrote, captioning a sweet photo alongside Griner.
“I love my wife wholeheartedly, so this message comes during one of the weakest moments of my life. I understand that many of you have grown to love BG over the years and have concerns and want details. Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely,” Cherelle added.
In a separate post on Monday, Cherelle took to social media again with a photo of Griner’s family and loved ones, telling fans:
“There are no words to express this pain. I’m hurting, we’re hurting. We await the day to love on you as a family,” she wrote on March 7.
It might be tough to free Griner
Russia’s State Department issued a do not travel advisory amid the ongoing war between the country and Ukraine. Officials urged U.S. citizens to evacuate, warning Americans of the “potential for harassment” by Russian government security officials” and “the Embassy’s limited ability to assist” Americans in Russia.
A member of the US House Armed Services Committee told CNN that it was “it’s going to be very difficult” to get Griner out of Russia amid the chaotic war crisis.
“Our diplomatic relationships with Russia are nonexistent at the moment,” said Democratic Rep. John Garamendi on Monday. “Perhaps during the various negotiations that may take place, she might be able to be one of the solutions. I don’t know.”
Additionally, Garamendi noted that Russia “has some very, very strict LGBT rules and laws,” but it’s unclear as to whether they will affect the WNBA star’s case.