Brittney Griner, the 31-year-old WNBA basketball star detained by Russian officials earlier this year, has written a letter to President Joe Biden in a bid to have the U.S. government extricate her from prison.
In a series of excerpts from Griner’s letter made public earlier this week, Griner asked Biden to not “forget” about her. The two-time Olympic gold medalist expressed to the president that she is “terrified” of possible indefinite imprisonment in quotes from her letter published in the New York Times.
“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 wrote. Another passage read: “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.”
Griner was arrested and imprisoned in February after vape cartridges containing a concentrated form of cannabis were reportedly found in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo International Airport, located near the city of Moscow. At the time, Griner was travelling with the UMMC Ekaterinburg team in Russia, where the Phoenix Mercury centre was playing during the WNBA off-season.
In a statement, a White House spokeswoman—who did not confirm or deny whether Biden had read Griner’s handwritten letter himself—said the president “has been clear about the need to see all U.S. nationals who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad released.” The representative told the New York Times that the administration is “using every available means” to bring Griner home, adding that “the president’s team is in regular contact” with Griner’s family.
That latter statement contradicts an interview with the basketball star’s spouse, Cherelle Griner, in which she told the news program CBS Morning that neither her wife nor the family has been in direct contact with Biden.
“It kills me every time when I have to write her and she’s asking, ‘Have you met with them yet?’ and I have to say no,” Cherelle Griner told CBS anchor Gayle King. “I’m sure she is like, ‘I’m going to write him and ask now because my family has tried, to no avail, so I’m going to do it myself.’”
Cherelle Griner said that her wife’s bid for freedom came after months of waiting for release in accordance with the Biden administration’s timeline.
“Initially I was told, ‘We’re going to try to handle this behind the scenes. Let’s not raise her value. Stay quiet,’” she claimed. “I did that, and respectfully, we’re over 140 days at this point. That does not work. I will not be quiet anymore.”
Legal analysts believe Russia plans to use Griner’s detainment as a bargaining chip to negotiate the freedom of one or more Russian operatives imprisoned on U.S. soil, according to ESPN. (One possible outcome could be the release of arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was sentenced to 25 years in a U.S. federal prison over a decade ago.) Experts predicted that Griner will most likely be found guilty by the Russian courts and could face up to a 10-year sentence.
Intensifying the personal and geopolitical ramifications of Griner’s imprisonment are the threats Griner faces as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
In 2013, the year Griner came out publicly as a lesbian, Russia enacted legislation that essentially declared open season on Russia’s LGBTQ+ population under the guise of banning homosexual “propaganda.” Even something as benign as a leaflet for an LGBTQ+ support group is now an illegal offence. The law further engendered right-wing attacks on queer people without the threat of legal recourse, and hate crimes have doubled in Russia in the the years since its passage.
Griner’s trial officially began on July 1. It’s expected to last up to two months. On July 7, Griner pleaded guilty, telling a judge that she had brought in cannabis oil “inadvertently.” According to ESPN, Griner said: “I’d like to plead guilty, your honour. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.” The next court hearing is scheduled for July 14.
Update: July 7, 2022 12:14 pmThis story was updated to address Brittney Griner’s July 7 guilty plea.