Brittney Griner's Russian Prison Saga: Everything You Need to Know
News broke in March that WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner was detained by Russian authorities at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow for allegedly being in possession of a vape cartridge filled with hashish oil. The move came against the backdrop of Russia's invasion of neighboring Ukraine and the fierce response from the international community for its actions. It is feared by some that Griner could be used as a bargaining chip for Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.
Here's everything you need to know about Brittney Griner and her harrowing legal situation in Russia.
Griner is a seven-time WNBA all-star with two Olympic gold medals.
Brittney Griner owned the women's basketball gold medal game at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Griner was a 2013 Out100 honoree later and bared it all for ESPN's 2015 Body Issue. She's also the first player to record a slam dunk in the league.
Griner came out in 2013 and married Cherelle Griner (nee Watson) in 2019. It was her second marriage.
According to a statement by the Russian Federal Customs Service, Griner was arrested after what was described as a vape cartridge filled with hashish oil was found in her luggage at some point in February.
"In February 2022, 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 Russian Federal Customs Service reported.
It is unclear when Griner was arrested and it is expected she had been under detention for three weeks, but she did post to Instagram on February 5. Under Russia's drug laws, Griner could have faced up to ten years in jail depending upon the severity of the charges that were eventually filed.
Like many WNBA players, Griner signed to play in a Russian women's basketball leagues during the off-season to supplement her salary. She signed with UMMC Yekaterinburg for slightly less than $1 million, roughly four times her WNBA annual salary back in 2016. That figure has likely increased.
An ESPN feature from May of that year found the league treated its foreign women's basketball players well, providing a personal driver, delivering bottled water to players' residences, chartering flights for away games, and more. The feature also stipulated that the league in effect shielded Griner from anti-LGBTQ+ policies and laws in Russia.
Griner received strong support during her time of trouble, from the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to the WNBA and her wife, and there was always a group effort to return her safely home.
"With regard to the individual you mentioned [Griner], there's only so much I can say given the privacy considerations at this point." Secretary Blinken said in response to a question about Griner at a March press conference with Moldavan President Maia Sandu. "Let me just say more generally, whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia, as you know, and we've talked about this for a long time when we talk about seeking the release of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed for some time, both of whom are unjustly detained. We have an embassy team that's working on the cases of other Americans who are detained in Russia. We're doing everything we can to see to it that their rights are upheld and respected.
"Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me regarding my wife's safe return from Russia," wife Cherelle Griner posted to Instagram after news of the arrest broke. "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 [Britney Griner] over the years and have concerns and want details. Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely."
The WNBA said, "Brittney Griner has the WNBA's full support and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States."
The WNBA Player's Association expressed their concern for Griner as well. "Our utmost concern is BG's safety and well-being," the WNBAPA said in a statement. "On behalf of The 144, we send our love and support. We will continue to closely monitor and look forward to her return to the U.S."
The Phoenix Mercury, Grine's team, said in a statement: "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 WNBA and NBA. We love and support Brittney and at this time our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home.
According to ESPN in a development first reported by TASS, a court near Moscow had extended the detention of Griner another two months.
"The court granted the request of the investigation and extended the period of detention of the US citizen Griner until May 19," TASS reported the court declared in its ruling.
TASS reported speaking with a representative from Moscow's Public Monitoring Commission, Ekaterina Kalugina, who said she had visited Griner at a detention center but that Russian officials were denying access to Griner by the U.S. Consul. She also said the main problem Griner has endured to far is a bed not long enough for her height.
The WNBA has been very supportive of Griner throughout the saga, putting her initials on the courts for every team, and with many WNBA players wearing shirts and hoodies showing support for her.
Griner's former teammate Penny Taylor recently used her induction speech into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame to speak on the issue. "B.G. is our family, she's yours too," she said. "The entire global sport community needs to come together to insist that she be a priority."
Recently, US State Department officials met with Griner's WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, to discuss Griner's status and efforts being made to free her. The meeting included representatives from the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, and members of the House of Representatives. In May, two of those members, Greg Stanton of Arizona and Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, along with Colin Allred of Texas, introduced a resolution calling for her release.
Some of Griner's teammates on the Mercury have recently spoken out about her detainment.
"It's something that we've all talked about intimately as a group, and now knowing the State Department at the highest level, from US President Joe Biden to the team that is working on bringing back all Americans who are wrongfully detained, gives us a lot of confidence that they're working on it," Diana Taurasi, the Mercury's star guard, said in a statement. "Anything that we can do on our side to amplify and to put B.G. first will be our No. 1 priority."
Mercury Forward Brianna Turner added that: "They encouraged us to keep speaking her name, to keep holding them accountable to bring B.G. back home as soon as possible."
In June, a Russian court decided to extend Griner's pretrial detention until July 2, meaning she'll have been in jail without a trial for four months. According to The New York Times, this is a typical move from the Russian courts, who often extend detention repeatedly before a trial.
The WNBA star got even more bad news at her preliminary hearing in Russia on Monday, June 27. Griner was brought into the court in shackles, four and a half months after originally being arrested at a Russian airport on cannabis possession charges.
Griner was ordered to stand trial, but more than that, according to the AP, she was also ordered to remain in custody for the duration of her criminal trial. At the time of that reporting, her detention had been extended by another six months, meaning she'll be in Russian detention for nearly a year. If she's convicted, Griner could face ten years in prison.
In December, Griner's long battle with the Russian court system came to a close when the White House announced that the out WNBA legend had finally been released from wrongful Russian custody.
"Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner," President Biden tweeted, breaking the news. "She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home."
\u201cMoments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner.\n \nShe is safe.\nShe is on a plane.\nShe is on her way home.\u201d— President Biden (@President Biden) 1670505284
Griner's release was part of what is being referred to as a "prison swap." In exchange for Griner's release, the US released Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the "merchant of death," back into their custody.