Biden Administration Negotiates Britney Griner Release


Courtesy of Andrej Cukic

Britney Griner reacts during a game.

Last February, WNBA player Brittney Griner was detained in Russia for possession of marijuana. She had flown into Russia to play for the UMMC Ekaterinburg, the overseas women’s basketball team she plays for during her offseason. While going through customs, officials found a vape pen with less than a gram of hash oil, a concentrated form of cannabis, stored in cartridges. A week after her detention was announced, Russia started its invasion of Ukraine. In the months following, the Russian Federation extended Griner’s pretrial detention in March, May, and June.

Her trial finally began July 1. Only U.S. representatives from the Embassy and two press representatives were allowed in the courtroom. The hearings occurred throughout the month — Griner pleaded guilty and claimed that the cartridges were left in the bag unintentionally, as she was in a hurry to pack. Additionally, she presented a note from her medical doctor stating her need to possess marijuana in order to ease her chronic pain. During her trial period, she sent a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden pleading for his help.

“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,” Griner wrote. “I’m terrified I might be here forever.”

On Aug. 4, a jury found Griner guilty and sentenced her to nine years in prison for drug smuggling and possession; the maximum allotted time for a minor charge is 10 years. Griner’s WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, delayed their game against the Connecticut Suns to watch her trial in the locker room before going out onto the court.

“Nine years, it’s pretty unusual and it contradicts the existing court practice in Russia,” Maria Blagovolia, one of Griner’s lawyers, said in an interview with PEOPLE. “That’s why we are really disappointed and very much surprised by this decision of the court.”

The U.S. State Department has classified Griner as being “wrongfully detained.” According to Griner’s wife Cherelle, the New York Times, and the Atlantic, many suspect that she is being held as a political pawn in response to the United States’ involvement with Ukraine as tensions between the U.S. and Russia heighten.

The Biden administration has proposed a prisoner swap under the mounting pressure for Griner’s release. The last swap occurred April 27, 2022, when the U.S. Government traded Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko for U.S. Marine Trevor Reed. The proposal also expresses a desire to bring back Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine. Whelan was accused of spying and was arrested Dec. 28, 2018 while getting ready for a friend’s wedding. The U.S. State Department also believes Whelan’s charges are false.

“Russia says it caught James Bond on a spy mission,” Whelan said in court in 2018. “In reality they abducted Mr. Bean on holiday.”

Holding a sign in court behind a defendant’s cage, he wrote that this was a “sham trial.” Similar to Griner’s situation, the Russian Federation extended his detention period to June 15, 2020, when he was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Almost all of the trial was conducted behind closed doors.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in late July for negotiations — the U.S. would swap Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout, an illegal arms dealer and former Soviet military translator. He was accused of not only smuggling arms but also conspiring to kill Americans, and is currently serving a 25-year sentence.

Griner will stay in a penal colony to serve her sentence. She may be offered an opportunity to work as a basketball coach for inmates rather than cleaning or cooking, depending on the penal colony she’s placed in. On Aug. 15, 11 days after the verdict, Griner’s attorneys filed an appeal to her sentence. No new significant updates have occurred since they requested the appeal.

“Brittney is stressed and very much concerned with the future,” Blagovolia said in her most recent update to PEOPLE on Sept. 13. “We need to use every legal opportunity that we have, and appeal is one of these opportunities.”