Brittney Griner, a star WNBA Center, has been trapped in Russia since March or mid-February. News broke Thursday that she’ll be staying there for quite some time.

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Griner played basketball for the Russian Premier League during the U.S.’s off-season. On her way into Russia, the Russian Federal Customs Service detained her, saying they found a THC concentrate called hash oil (or hashish oil) in her bag. Rather than being charged for a small amount of marijuana typically considered to be for personal use, Griner was accused of “large-scale transportation of drugs.”

A conviction on that crime carried a maximum sentence of ten years. Griner was found guilty and sentenced to 9. She was also fined a million rubles, which equates to about $16,300.

Prisoner Exchange

The demand that she be sent to a penal colony has been criticized as a political move that would force political negotiations. Although, some reporting has suggested the U.S. planned to swap prisoners with the Kremlin – Griner and former marine Paul Whelan for Russian Arms dealer Viktor Bout, also known as the Merchant of Death. Whelan has been held in Russia since 2016 and is facing a 16-year sentence.

A silver, blue, and light blue Air Force One Boeing plane flying in the sky The U.S. is fighting for a prisoner exchange. photo credit
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Officials in Moscow now say such an exchange would not have been possible until a verdict was handed down. Griner’s lawyers plan is to appeal, but Biden is already stepping in.

Support from Brittney Griner’s Country and President

The U.S. State Department considers Griner wrongfully detained. President Biden wrote in a statement issued on August 4th, the day Griner’s sentence was handed down:

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. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.
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Griner says she does not know how the hash oil wound up in her luggage but says a doctor recommended she use it for chronic pain as a result of her career in sports. She says she was aware that cannabis oil is outlawed in Russia. Samples of the athlete’s fluids found no traces of drugs. Griner also noted that she was recovering from a tough bout with COVID-19 when she flew from Arizona to Russia.

“I didn’t have any intent to use or keep in my possession any substance that is prohibited in Russia,” said Griner. “With them being accidentally in my bags, I take responsibility, but I did not intend to smuggle or plan to smuggle anything into Russia,” the AP quotes her as saying.

Two basketball players, one being Brittney Griner, wearing orange and the opponent wearing blue Brittney Griner pleads guilty to the Russian courts. photo credit

The Olympian chose to plead guilty in early July, hoping for leniency.

“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 representatives said.

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.

During her testimony in Russia, Griner said she’d been unable to communicate after being detained at the airport in Moscow. Griner says an interpreter only translated a fraction of what was being said to her in that process and that she was never given an explanation of what her rights were in that country, nor given access to a lawyer after she was first detained. She says she used a translation app on her phone to try to communicate with customs officers and says officials made her sign documents but never explained what she was signing.

Fighting for Brittney With an Offer to Russia

President Joe Biden has been actively involved in Griner’s detainment. She wrote to the president on the Fourth of July. Excerpts shared by her representatives quote the letter as saying,

“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. 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.”

President Joe Biden signing a document wearing a blue suit and red tie. President Joe Biden and Brittney Griner have been corresponding via letters. photo credit

Biden wrote back a couple of days later and called Griner’s wife to assure her his administration was working to get Griner home. On July 27th, news broke that the Biden administration had made an offer to the Russian government, trying to get Griner released. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the proposal substantial and hoped it would lead to a resolution of the problem.

A spokesperson for the United States National Security Council, John Kirby, said Thursday that conversations are going on “at various levels” but said he wouldn’t discuss details of those conversations.

“The President is laser-focused on this,” said Kirby. “He and the whole team are working on this literally every day. Just like I won’t get into the details of the proposal that we put forward, I don’t think it would be helpful to Brittney or Paul for us to talk more publicly about where we are in the talks, and what the president might or might not be willing to do. He wants to see Brittney and Paul home, and he’s personally involved in making sure that happens.”

The guilty verdict was expected, but the nine-year sentence still came as a shock. Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, made that clear Thursday. She said,

Today’s sentencing of Brittney Griner was severe by Russian legal standards and goes to prove what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn. We appreciate and continue to support the efforts of [President Biden] and [Secretary of State Antony Blinken] to get a deal done swiftly to bring Brittney, Paul, and all Americans home. Bringing Brittney and Paul home is the sole objective, and as such, we should use all available tools. We must remain focused and unified.

“This is a time for compassion and a shared understanding that getting a deal done to bring Americans home will be hard, but it is urgent and it is the right thing to do,” added Kagawa Colas.

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