WNBA star Brittney Griner wrote a letter to President Joe Biden telling him she is “terrified” she’ll be left in Russian prison “forever,” and begged him not to forget her or other U.S. citizens detained in other countries.
The handwritten letter was delivered to the White House on Monday, July 4, and excerpts were provided to reporters. In it, Griner lamented her situation, and said that her imprisonment has made her reconsider the meaning of Independence Day.
“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,” Griner wrote.
“On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran. It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year,” she added.
She implored Biden not to forget American citizens detained by hostile governments abroad.
“I realize you are dealing with so much,” the center for Phoenix Mercury wrote. “But please don’t forget about me and the other American detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home.”
Griner, who plays for Russian basketball team UMCC Ekaterinburg in the off-season for extra income, was arrested in February after Russian customs officials at a Moscow airport accused her of having vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage.
At the time, the Russian Federal Customs Service released a video of a traveler who looked like Griner going through airport security, followed by footage of someone examining a package that appeared to be from a traveler’s bag. Due to Russian laws prohibiting illicit substances, Griner was subsequently charged with “large-scale transportation of drugs.”
The U.S. has alleged that Griner is being wrongfully detained — a charge which Russian officials have denied. Some security experts have speculated that the WNBA player was scapegoated in retaliation for the United States’ vocal opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year.
Last week, Griner’s trial began, but for all intents, it has been deemed by many human rights observers, and the U.S. State Department as a “show trial,” one with a predetermined outcome.
The State Department has issued a Level 4 travel advisory urging U.S. citizens not to travel to Russia on the grounds that their safety cannot be assured. The State Department notes that Russian law enforcement officials have previously detained U.S. citizens, and “denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence.”
Last week, a Russian court extended Griner’s detention for another six months. According to Axios, during her last appearance in court, Griner reportedly told the court she understood the charges against her, but has declined to respond to them. She is next scheduled to appear in court on July 7.
“She is a bit worried because she has the trial and the sentencing in the close future. But she is a tough lady. I think that she will manage,” lawyer Alexander Boykov told Reuters when asked about Griner’s state of mind.
Elizabeth Rood, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Russia, said she spoke with Griner, who “asked me to convey that she is in good spirits and is keeping up the faith.”
While the United States had hoped to negotiate behind the scenes with Russia and pursue diplomatic channels, Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has decided to speak out, noting that the president has not directly reached out to the family to keep them apprised of the ongoing situation.
“It kills me every time that, you know, when I have to write her and she’s asking, ‘Have you met with them yet?’ And I have to say no… 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 told CBS Mornings host Gayle King in an interview on Tuesday, calling the situation “disheartening.”
“I will not be quiet anymore,” she said, explaining she feels like all diplomatic efforts to persuade Russia to release Griner have failed. “I will find that balance of harm versus help in pushing our government to do everything that’s possible. Because being quiet, they are not moving.”
Cherelle Griner told King that when she read excerpts of the letter her wife sent to Biden from prison, she could sense the fear that her wife was experiencing.
“She is probably the strongest person that I know, so she doesn’t say words like that lightly,” she said. “That means she truly is terrified that she may never see us again. You know, I share those same sentiments.”
According to Axios, National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said that national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have spoken with Cherelle Griner in recent weeks. She also claimed the White House is coordinating with the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, who has been in contact with the Griner family.
“We believe the Russian Federation is wrongfully detaining Brittney Griner,” Watson said in a statement on Monday. “President Biden has been clear about the need to see all U.S. nationals who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad released, including Brittney Griner. The U.S. government continues to work aggressively — using every available means — to bring her home.”
In concluding her letter to Biden, Griner noted that she voted for the president in 2020, writing, “I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”
The Biden administration has offered to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout as part of a deal to release WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American prisoner who the State Department claims is being unlawfully detained in Russia.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a State Department news conference that the White House had made a "substantial" offer to the Kremlin to ensure Griner's release.
"There was a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal," Blinken said. "And I'll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope move us toward a resolution."
The Russian government has expanded a law prohibiting dissemination of information that can be deemed "gay propaganda," meaning any information about homosexuality or LGBTQ individuals that is presented in a neutral or positive light.
First adopted by the government in 2013, the law was originally crafted to ban the spreading of "propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations" among minors, which was largely understood to mean any mention of homosexuality, sex education curricula that teaches about HIV/AIDS or encourages condom use, mentions or depictions of famous LGBTQ people, or content that depicts or is seen as encouraging any behavior that falls outside of traditional sex-based stereotypes -- even if such content is not sexual in nature.
LGBTQ groups are condemning a prison sentence handed down by a Russian court against WNBA star Brittney Griner, who became a pawn in a larger global skirmish between the United States and Russia stemming from the latter's illegal invasion of Ukraine.
Griner was found guilty, fined 1 million rubles -- or $16,300 in U.S. dollars -- and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony for allegedly attempting to smuggle illegal narcotics into Russia after being arrested at an airport back in February for having two vape cartridges containing hashish oil, a drug made from parts of the cannabis plant, in her luggage.
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