Who is Brittney Griner and why has she been detained in Russia?

US News

American basketball star Brittney Griner could face up to a decade behind bars after pleading guilty to drug possession charges at a Russian court.

Griner has been detained in Moscow since February after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

Now the US government is under growing pressure to do more to secure her freedom after she was “wrongfully detained”.

Who is Brittney Griner?

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Two-time Olympic gold winner Griner is one of the highest-paid players in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and has been hailed for her dunking ability.

The 31-year-old, who measures 6ft 9 in height, plays for Phoenix Mercury, a team based in Phoenix, Arizona.

The Texas-born athlete is married to Cherelle, who she met in university and describes as her “best friend” and “love of her life”.

Griner was hailed as an “American hero” by fellow WNBA star, Nneka Ogwumike in the wake of the charges against her.

What is she accused of?

Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February this year while returning to play basketball in Russia.

She was later charged with intentionally importing narcotics into the country and pleaded guilty to drug possession and smuggling on 7 July, the second day of her trial.

But the athlete said she had no intention of committing a crime and had acted “unintentionally” after packing for her trip to Moscow in a hurry.

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner (42) shoots around Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage during the first half of Game 5 of a WNBA basketball playoff series Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Chase Stevens)
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Griner during a WNBA basketball playoff in Las Vegas last October Pic: AP

She told the court last week: “I’d like to plead guilty, your honour. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.”

Now lawyers are hoping the sportswoman will receive the most lenient sentence possible.

Why is she stuck in Russia?

Griner’s detention had been authorised until 20 December, sparking concerns the trial could last months.

A senior Russian diplomat said no action could be taken until the trial has concluded.

She has been dubbed a “political pawn” amid speculation by Russian media that she could be swapped with Russian arms trader, Viktor Bout, nicknamed The Merchant of Death.

The Kremlin has long called for the release of Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US for conspiring to kill American citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.

It has also been suggested Griner could be traded alongside other US citizens believed to be “wrongly detained” by Moscow – including former marine, Paul Whelan.

Whelan was jailed for 16 years on espionage charges slammed as a “set-up” by Washington.

Brittney Griner
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Brittney Griner could face 10 years behind bars

What is the White House doing to help?

Deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Moscow, Elizabeth Rood, said she spoke to Griner who is “eating well, able to read books” and under the circumstances is “doing well”.

President Joe Biden called Griner’s wife on Wednesday to reassure her he is doing all he can to press for her release.

The phone call took place after Mr Biden received a letter from the basketball pro expressing fears she would never return home.

Cherelle Griner spouse of Brittney Griner during a press conference addressing the detention of Brittney Griner
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Griner’s wife, Cherelle

She wrote: “…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.

“On the 4 July, our family normally honours 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.”

Ms Rood told reporters: “I would like again to emphasize the commitment of the US government at the very highest level to bring home safely Ms Griner and all US citizens wrongfully detained as well as the commitment of the US Embassy in Moscow to care for and protect the interests of all US citizens detained or imprisoned in Russia.”

Brittney Griner escorted to a courtroom for a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow. Pic: AP
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Griner, pictured at a hearing in Khimki, outside Moscow. Pic: AP

What does Russia say?

Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, earlier warned the White House “attempts by the American side to make noise in public… don’t help the practical settlement of issues.”

Criticism from the US including the description of Griner being “wrongfully detained” makes it “difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges”, he said.

When asked about the possibility of Griner being swapped for a Russian prisoner in the US, Mr Ryabkov said: “There are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps” until the trial has concluded.

The case comes amid ongoing tensions between Moscow and Washington over Vladimir Putin‘s invasion of Ukraine.

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