June 1, 2022 Philadelphia Gay News
Brittney Griner (Photo courtesy Lorie Shaull, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Olympic Gold Medalist and WNBA All Star and lesbian activist Brittney Griner has now been detained in Russia for more than 100 days. The Phoenix Mercury star was first detained February 17 when she was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport near Moscow.
Griner was accused of drug smuggling after allegedly carrying hash oil when her bags were searched. Griner was in Russia because she plays for the UMMC Ekaterinburg team in the WNBA off-season. Griner has played in Russia for nearly seven years and has won several championships for the team, making the charges even less believable as all players are familiar with Russia’s stringent drug laws.
A video released March 8 by the Russian Federal Customs Service shows the very distinctive Griner, who is 6’9″ with long braids, at the arrest. Griner was identified by the Russia state-operated news agency Tass as a detainee on March 5. Rather than simple possession, which would have resulted in a fine and possible deportation, Griner was charged with “large-scale transportation of drugs” and could face up to 10 years in prison.
After nearly two months of silence on Griner’s pre-trial detention, the U.S. State Department announced on May 3 that it considers Griner to be “wrongfully detained.”
But as time passes and Griner’s trial date keeps being pushed back — now not until later this month — questions about her health and well-being continue to be raised by her wife, Cherelle Watson Griner, her agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas, the WNBA and Griner’s fans. The WNBA, which kicked off its 2022 season on May 6, honored Griner with a floor decal bearing her initials and jersey number (42) on the sideline of all 12 WNBA teams.
In an exclusive interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” with out lesbian and former basketball star Robin Roberts, Cherelle Griner appealed to President Biden to intervene on her wife’s behalf.
“I just keep hearing that he has the power,” Cherelle Griner said. “She’s a political pawn. If they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it.”
Cherelle Griner also said she has not spoken with her wife “for nearly 100 days,” but that the couple have had “sporadic” contact through letters.
“[Brittney] wrote me one letter and was like, ‘Babe, I know you wanna go down right now but like, don’t just yet,'” she said.
“I won’t go down until she’s back… Every single day matters for me to be sound, for me to be alert, for me to be attentive, to make sure that she comes back,” Cherelle Griner added.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price, himself openly gay, said in a press briefing that he spoke with Cherelle Griner by phone in early May. Price told the media that he had made assurances that the administration was doing everything it could to ensure Brittney Griner’s release.
Cherelle Griner told Roberts that she spoke with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and was “grateful” for the call, but added, “You say she’s top priority, but I wanna see it, and I feel like to see it would be me seeing BG on U.S. soil.”
The State Department’s announcement that Biden’s special envoy for hostage affairs would lead an interagency team to secure Griner’s release was met with excitement by Griner’s supporters.
But in the intervening time, Griner’s detention has been extended until June 18, and the Biden administration has said little about any efforts to secure her release.
On June 1, PGN requested an update on rumors that Griner’s release was being negotiated. A State Department spokesperson told PGN that there were concerns about regular and consistent access to Griner by U.S. officials.
The spokesperson said, “A consular officer visited Brittney Griner in detention on May 19, 2022. While the government of Russia allowed consular access in that instance, we continue to insist that they allow consistent, timely consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia, including those in pre-trial detention, in compliance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations and the bilateral consular convention with the United States.”
The spokesperson added, “We take our responsibility to assist U.S. citizens seriously, and we will continue to press for fair and transparent treatment for all U.S. citizens when they are subject to legal processes overseas.”
PGN asked if there had been any further interaction between the State Department and Griner’s wife or with her agent or the WNBA. They replied without specifics, noting, “We remain in regular contact with the families of those held hostage or wrongfully detained.”
PGN also asked if there was any new data on Griner’s health status, including her physical and mental well-being.
The State Department spokesperson replied that “The consular officer was able to verify that she is doing as well as can be expected.” but said also that “We do not have any additional details to offer at this time.”
Russian media reports that the U.S. and Russia are negotiating an exchange of Griner for Victor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who was convicted in the U.S.
Alexander Boikov, Griner’s lawyer in Russia, has not commented to the media in either Russia or the U.S. on her case or a possible prisoner exchange.
As Griner awaits a June 18 trial date, her supporters are intent on keeping her detention in the public eye. Dawn Staley, coach for the women’s U.S. Olympic basketball team at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, voiced her concerns to Yahoo Sports. “I know Brittney, I’ve been around her, know her heart. I know what she’s about,” Staley said. “And if she’s being wrongfully detained or not, I would be advocating for her release because nobody should be in a foreign country locked up abroad.”
Posting messages on Twitter daily, Staley tweeted to the official White House account last week about Griner, writing, “Can you please free our friend? All of her loved ones would sleep a little easier.”
On May 28, the WNBA players union marked the 100th day of Griner’s detention on social media platforms and by wearing hoodies and T-shirts with emblazoned with #WeAreBG.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN’s Malika Andrews that the NBA has “a huge responsibility” to Griner and “has been in touch with government and private sector channels to ensure her safe release back to the United States.”