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  • Victoria A. Brownworth

A Look Back at Brittney Griner’s 10-month Ordeal

December 13, 2022 Philadelphia Gay News

Illustration by Emily Coscia (@emilycosciaart)

Right before he signed the Respect for Marriage Act on the South Lawn of the White House Dec. 13, President Biden spoke about the release of Brittney Griner from her wrongful detention in Russia. Biden talked about Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and how hard she had fought for her wife’s release, and also how Cherelle’s dedication exemplified the love and commitment in their marriage.

That moment and those words from Biden were a coda on the 294 days of wrongful detention Griner endured on trumped-up drugs charges. Griner is the most prominent American jailed by a foreign government. She was freed Dec. 8 in a controversial prisoner exchange with Russia for arms dealer Viktor Bout. Griner had been held in a penal colony in Mordovia, which is one of the harshest in Russia and where she faced racism and homophobia as well as lack of adequate nutrition and medical care.

After her release, Griner explained she’d had to shave off her long braids because her hair kept freezing, making her sick. Video and still photos of Griner at the Mordovia penal colony were published in Russian news media after her release. These showed her working in the prison as well as the narrow bed in which she slept that was far too short for her 6’9″ frame.

The day of the announcement at the White House, Biden, Vice President Harris and Cherelle Griner were together to speak to the press about Griner’s release, which had been being negotiated since June.

Biden began his remarks saying, “Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.” He later posted those words along with a video of the press conference on Twitter.

The speech Biden gave at the press conference explained of the details of her release, but did not address the long detention and the fact that for 10 months, a Black lesbian basketball superstar — an Olympic gold medalist and WNBA all-star and star of five Russian championships — had been held on what the U.S. State Department knew were bogus charges.

For half that time, Cherelle’s efforts notwithstanding, the Biden administration was reluctant to discuss Griner’s detention, as was the mainstream news media. For much of those early months, PGN’s was often the only reporting on Griner. PGN was in contact with the State Department weekly throughout her detention. Griner’s arrest and the manner in which she was detained had always been political. That the State Department refused to acknowledge that may be an issue of diplomacy. Or shame.

On July 4th, Griner wrote to Biden, “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.”

Screenshot from Russian Television

Evelyn Farkas, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia and Ukraine under President Obama, said that Griner was a “high-profile hostage.” The fact that only Griner was released Dec. 8 and not former Marine Paul Whelan bolsters Farkas’s assertion.

Griner was first arrested on February 17 — exactly a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, but several weeks after Biden had warned that Russia was going to invade Ukraine imminently. It was not until May that the State Department formally declared Griner’s detention “wrongful.”

The story of Griner’s detention was always suspect. After having worked in Russia in the WNBA off season every year since 2014, Griner was thoroughly familiar with the drug rules. And as PGN reported, at Griner’s original detention at the Moscow airport she was misled about the circumstances of why she was taken, she was not given a translator, and she was not aware that she was going to be held over and brought to jail.

As Griner’s WNBA Mercury Phoenix coach Vanessa Nygaard said succinctly on July 5 to NBC’s TODAY about the six months Griner had already spent in a Moscow prison, “If it was LeBron, he’d be home, right?”

Nygaard also said that the failure to bring Griner home immediately was “a statement about the value of women. It’s a statement about the value of a Black person. It’s a statement about the value of a gay person. All of those things. We know it, and so that’s what hurts a little more.”

It was not until Cherelle Griner said in a press conference on July 5 that neither Biden nor any member of the administration had spoken to her — five months after Griner had been detained — that Biden got in touch with Cherelle.

PGN also investigated the dubious assertion that Griner was smuggling drugs. Arrests for drug possession and smuggling are common in Russia and account for a quarter of all arrests. The amount of vape oil Griner had was a trace amount, less than a gram. According to Russia’s own standards, she should never have been charged with anything but possession, given a fine and let go. Instead she was charged as a drug smuggler who intended to distribute drugs — an impossibility, given what was actually found in her luggage. Yet Irina Begisheva of the Main Directorate for the Fight Against Smuggling of the Federal Customs Service said that Griner was arrested “for smuggling of a significant amount of drugs,” which was always false.

A white Staten Island teenager, Audrey Lorber, was arrested in 2019 while traveling with her mother and detained for drug smuggling when her medical marijuana prescription of 19 grams of marijuana was found in her baggage, 19 times what Griner had. Lorber spent three months in jail, was sentenced to time served, paid a small fine and was released.

But Griner was convicted Aug. 4 and sentenced to 9 and a half years. She lost her appeal Oct. 25, just days after her 32 birthday. She was moved to Mordovia Nov. 9.

Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens accompanied Griner home to the U.S. On Dec. 12, Carstens was interviewed by “GMA” anchor Robin Roberts, herself a former basketball player and an out lesbian. Carstens told Roberts how impressed he was with Griner. He said she had introduced herself to all the crew members and thanked each of them.

Carstens said, “BG is an intelligent, impressive woman who is very self-aware, very kind, very humble, and above all authentic.” Carstens also lauded Cherelle as a “total partner in the release process.”

In an extended interview with Amna Nawaz on PBS NewsHour, Carstens discussed the details at length. PBS has a full transcript of the interview, which gives more insights into Griner’s first response to being told by Carstens, “I’m here on behalf of President Joe Biden and Secretary Blinken, I’m here to take you home.” Carstens presented Griner with a “BG” pin that Cherelle and Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas had made for Griner.

On Dec. 13 Colas told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that “[Griner] is doing so well. She’s taking advantage of all the resources that the reintegration program has to offer, but she’s doing great. The sparkle’s still there, she’s grateful to be home, she’s talking about ideas for what’s next, and she’s spending time sampling all the finest fare that San Antonio has to offer.”

Colas said, “She’s been through a lot, but she’s full of gratitude, she’s so happy to be home.”

Of Griner’s time in the penal colony and the photos of her incarceration, Colas said, “Brittney’s resilient” and added that Griner tried to embrace her job there and “tried to be present” and that “as an elite athlete,” Griner was committed to a routine and to maintaining her health, which is why she cut her hair. Colas ended the interview saying that Griner is thinking about what’s next and that she is both “joyful to be home” and “heartbroken about Paul Whelan.”

Cherelle Griner stated at the White House press conference that she and Griner would be dedicating their efforts to getting other detainees home.

President Joe Biden greets Cherelle Griner following the release of Brittney Griner, Thursday, December 8, 2022, in the Oval Office. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Paul Whelan’s family released a statement, “There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home. The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to.”

Whelan’s brother David has been outspoken about Republican rhetoric that Biden abandoned Paul Whelan, noting that former President Trump had “years” to get his brother released and did not.

Of GOP attacks on Biden and about Griner, Secretary Farkas said, “The Griner family should be allowed to rejoice. No one should be politicizing this.”

Griner has not released a statement about her release thus far and is still undergoing treatment at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio where she is staying in a residential area on the base with Cherelle.

Care for Griner is focused on a program for formerly captive people to help them “regain a sense of control over their lives after lengthy detentions.” CNN reports that Griner opted into the Department of Defense’s post-isolation program, which other wrongfully detained Americans, including Trevor Reed, have participated in. The State Department told PGN, citing privacy concerns, that they could not give specifics on what kind of treatment Griner was receiving.

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