Update: August 4, 2022
Despite the White House’s talk of a prisoner swap in exchange for her freedom, Brittney Griner has been convicted of drug smuggling and sentenced to 9 years in a Russian prison.
Brittney’s lawyers said they will appeal the verdict, calling it “absolutely unreasonable” as it is just narrowly below the 10 year maximum sentence. Prior to the verdict, Brittney said:
“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here. I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that, that is far from this courtroom. I want to say again that I had no intent on breaking any Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime.”
The U.S. State Department has maintained that Brittney has been wrongfully detained. The harsh sentence has sparked outrage and grief across the world at what many are calling a reaction to the tense geopolitical relations between the United States and Russia.
U.S. officials and the White House have been working on a possible prisoner exchange that would bring Brittney home for the first time since she was detained in February, but it remains to be seen whether it will succeed.
Update: July 7, 2022
Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in Russian court on Thursday, roughly five months after her initial detainment in the country for drug smuggling charges. The punishment carries up to 10 years in Russian prison.
The basketball star’s trial started last week, and her plea came on the second day of the hearing. “I’d like to plead guilty, your honor,” she said in English, which was translated into Russian by an interpreter, based on what a Reuters reporter revealed. “But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.” Brittney also told the court that she did not mean to commit a crime and that the drugs in her luggage were the result of hurried and rushed packing, according to news agency RIA Novosti.
Now, at least two things can potentially happen: Brittney can ask for clemency or Russia could do a prisoner swap with the United States, according to the New York Times. Apparently, the latter may be the best option to secure Brittney’s return to America, but it’s still far too soon to tell.
In February, Brittney was arrested at an airport near Moscow after less than a gram of cannabis oil was found in her luggage, reported Russian officials. According to the New York Times, Brittney was charged with “illegal drug possession and with smuggling a ‘significant amount.’” She was in the country to play with her international basketball team, who she’s been competing with since 2014 during the WNBA’s off-seasons.
The next hearing day is scheduled for July 14.
Update: March 21, 2022
Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia has been extended to May 19, according to Russian news agency TASS, reported NBC News. The extension would make Brittney’s imprisonment just over three months long.
“The court granted the petition of the investigation and extended the term of detention of U.S. citizen [Griner] until May 19,” reported TASS.
During the hearing last week where this decision was made, Brittney’s lawyers not only challenged her detainment but also asked for her to be put on house arrest instead, explained a source to NBC News. The source also mentioned that Brittney’s pretrial detainment will continue to get prolonged for as long as it takes to fully investigate her case. According to ESPN, “Such delays are standard in Russia and that [Brittney] may be held without trial for up to a year or up to 18 months in extraordinary circumstances.”
Ekaterina Kalugina, a representative of the Russian group that checks in on the country’s detainees, was quoted saying that U.S. officials had not come to see Brittney even though “the administration of the pretrial detention center is ready to create all conditions for his visit,” reported NBC News.
There seems to be a large discrepancy here though, because a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department told NBC News that they have “consistently been denied access” to see Brittney even after “repeatedly” asking for it. The State Department even released a statement demanding access to Brittney and other U.S. citizens in Russia’s custody, according to NBC News. Part of the statement read:
“We are closely engaged on this case and in frequent contact with Brittney Griner’s legal team. We insist the Russian government provide consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia, including those in pretrial detention, as Brittney Griner is.”
Kalugina was also quoted saying that Brittney is “holding up fine” and that her “physical condition is fine.” She added, “I’d even say that she is fairly calm and isn’t anxious.”
Check back here for updates as this is a developing story.
Original story: March 11, 2022
As seven-time WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner was traveling through an airport near Moscow—as she’s done since beginning to play overseas in Russia eight years ago—vape cartridges of hashish oil were found in her luggage, according to Russian customs officials. Hashish oil is a highly concentrated form of THC, typically used with vape pens and is considered a “narcotic substance” in Russia. Brittney was arrested on drug charges and has been detained in Russia since February 17.
News first broke in the U.S. about Brittney’s arrest on March 5 after the Russian news outlet TASS identified Brittney by name, according to the New York Times. A booking photo of Brittney was later aired on Russian State TV the same day; CNN aired the image in a segment. The Russian Federal Customs Service arrested Brittney but did not release her name. The agency said in a statement:
“As a U.S. citizen was passing through the green channel at Sheremetyevo Airport upon arriving from New York, a working dog from the Sheremetyevo Customs canine department detected the possible presence of narcotic substances in the accompanying luggage. The customs inspection of the hand luggage being carried by the U.S. citizen confirmed the presence of vapes with specifically-smelling liquid, and an expert determined that the liquid was cannabis oil (hash oil), which is a narcotic substance.”
A criminal case has been opened on drug smuggling, per the Customs Service. The punishment can be up to 10 years in prison.
After seven seasons, all of which have been with the Phoenix Mercury, Brittney is one of the WNBA’s highest-paid players. For the upcoming 2022 season, she will earn nearly $228,000—the league’s maximum salary. Like most of her colleagues, Brittney has been playing overseas since 2014 during the league’s off-season because there are opportunities to make significantly more money internationally. It’s proven true: Brittney makes roughly $1 million a season in Russia, according to the Associated Press, which also mentioned that Brittney’s last game in Russia was on January 29, right before the league went on break for two weeks.
The other WNBA players competing in Russia and Ukraine were able to leave the countries safely, according to ESPN. Brittney’s whereabouts are still unknown.
Texas Representative Colin Allred, a House Foreign Affairs Committee member, told ESPN that he’s been making efforts to ensure Brittney’s safety and return home. “My office has been in touch with the State Department, and we’re working with them to see what is the best way forward,” said Allred, who also was a student athlete at Baylor University like Brittney. “I know the administration is working hard to try and get access to her and try to be helpful here. But obviously, it’s also happening in the context of really strained relations. I do think that it’s really unusual that we’ve not been granted access to her from our embassy and our consular services.”
He continued, “The Russian criminal justice system is very different than ours, very opaque. We don’t have a lot of insight into where she is in that process right now, but she’s been held for three weeks now, and that’s extremely concerning.”
Allred played football at Baylor from 2001 to 2005, and Brittney, a Houston native, played basketball for the Bears from 2009 to 2013. She helped the 2011–2012 team win the NCAA National Championship after a perfect 40-0 season.
Allred explained that while Brittney isn’t the first American to be held in Russian imprisonment, the primary difference is that Brittney’s a high-profile athlete, and there are fears that she could be used as a political pawn, especially considering the international tensions right now and President Joe Biden’s ban on Russian oil imports.
Countless people have been rallying around Brittney and urging for her safe and expeditious return. There is a Change.org petition with nearly 50,000 signatures, and current Baylor students have been holding “Free Brittney” signs at recent women’s basketball games. The WNBA, its players’ union, the Phoenix Mercury, and USA Basketball all have released formal statements in support of Brittney.
Brittney’s wife Cherelle Griner spoke out for the first time with a post on Instagram. She expressed gratitude to loved ones and fans for their support and also asked for privacy during this understandably devastating time.
“Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me regarding my wife’s safe return from Russia,” began the caption. “Your prayers and support are greatly appreciated. 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.”
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Brittney’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas released a statement to ESPN on March 5, saying: “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. 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.”
Check back here for updates as this is a developing story.
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