What happened to WNBA star Brittney Griner?

WNBA star Brittney Griner, 31, has been detained in Russia since February after drugs were allegedly found in her luggage by officials at a Moscow airport.

Her arrest came shortly before Russia launched its war in Ukraine, with geopolitical tensions no doubt making it more difficult to secure her release.

Ms. Griner’s family, friends and fans — along with many public figures — have been calling on Russia for months to release her and the US State Department to intervene.

Her trial began on Friday (July 1), days after a court ordered her detention be extended until December.

Here’s everything we know about the ordeal:

Who is Brittney Griner?

Mrs. Griner plays as a center for the Phoenix Mercury WNBA team. She also competed on the U.S. Olympic basketball team in 2016. In 2020, she again competed in the US Olympics, where she won her second gold medal.

She is an accomplished basketball player, who earned a Best Female Athlete award with the ESPYs and earned an endorsement deal with Nike in 2013.

What happened?

On February 17, Ms Griner was traveling through Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow when Russian customs officials allegedly found cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage.

Mrs. Griner was taken into custody at the airport. Tom Firestone, a lawyer specializing in international criminal and compliance matters, told ESPN that Ms. Griner has been charged with illegally crossing a customs border with illegal narcotics.

He said the charges against her could carry up to 10 years in prison. If she is found to have more than 2.5 grams of illegal narcotics, she could face up to 20 years in prison.

On June 27, Russian courts extended Ms Griner’s detention until December 20. She appeared in court for her trial, which was set to begin on Friday (July 1).

Why was she in Russia?

Mrs. Griner had been to Russia to play basketball in the Russian Premiere League.

Many American athletes travel abroad during the off-season in the US to continue competing in their chosen sport. The off-season foreign competitions provide American athletes with additional opportunities to earn money and a chance to keep their skills sharp through ongoing competition. WNBA stars like Ms. Griner earn only 1.5 percent of the salary NBA players earn in a year, on average, so playing outside of the US often helps make up for that pay gap.

Mrs. Griner earns $1 million per season she plays in Russia. Her base salary with the Phoenix Mercury is $221,450.

What is being done to help her?

Griner’s supporters, along with her family and friends, have called for the woman’s release.

Democratic Representative John Garamendi told CNN that obtaining her release will be “very difficult” due to ongoing political tensions between Russia and the US.

There are some US officials who have theorized that Russia is using Ms. Griner’s detention as a political bargaining chip. Pentagon official Evelyn Farkas said she feared Ms. Griner would be used by Russia as a “high-profile hostage” that Russia could use to secure its prisoner exchanges with the US.

On March 23, a diplomatic official was allowed to visit Ms Griner in Russia and said she was in “good condition”. Russian observers also checked in on Ms. Griner and reported that she was fine, except that the bed in the facility where she is being held was not built for someone her height.

More than 40 organizations, including the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, the National Urban League and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, sent a signed letter to Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris urging Biden to negotiate a deal. close with Russia to secure her release.

A prisoner swap was reportedly under consideration on May 15, with Ms Griner being returned to the US in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout. Mr. Bout was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy to kill US citizens and officials, delivering anti-aircraft missiles and providing aid to a terrorist organization. He is currently being held in US prison.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he has spoken with Mrs. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and said his top priority was to ensure the release of Americans imprisoned in Russia.

“I have no higher priority than making sure Americans who are illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,” he said. “That includes Paul Whelan, including Brittney Griner, including people in a number of other countries.”

Cherelle Griner spoke to Rev. Al Sharpton about her wife’s detention in Russia and described the WNBA star as “struggling.”

“She’s terrified there, she’s alone there,” Cherelle Griner said.

She told Mr Sharpton that she believes her wife is hiding some of her concerns to protect her.

“Being her person she will always try to write convincingly to make sure I don’t break because she knows I’m studying for my bar and she knows I’ve got all these things going on and she’s always trying my strong person,” she said.

Ms Griner reportedly told Cherelle, “I’m holding on and I won’t break until I get home.”

According to officials who spoke to CNN, the US embassy in Moscow would send a diplomat to attend Ms. Griner’s hearing on Friday (June 1).

The State Department’s official position is that Ms Griner is “unjustly detained” and it will continue to work to secure her release.

“The US government will continue to provide appropriate support to Ms Griner and her family. We will continue to press for her release,” a spokesperson for the department said.

Cherelle said she was told “a lot of convincing things” by the State Department, but noted that she can only rely on what she sees.

“That leads me to believe that this case is right on the doorstep” [President Joe] Biden,” she said. “Nobody seems to be at a point where they can tell me anything, so I can only go by what I see and what I see is my wife isn’t there.”

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