PHOENIX – Saturday marks 100 days since Brittney Griner was detained.
The center of the star Phoenix Mercury was taken into Russian custody February 17 at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow after the Russian Federal Customs Service claimed to have found vape cartridges containing concentrated marijuana hash oil in his luggage.
Griner, who is a seven-time WNBA All-Star, played for UMMC Yekaterinburg in the Russian Premier League during the WNBA offseason since 2014. The former No. 1 overall pick was returning to Russia to complete the Russian Premier League season when she was arrested.
A plethora of WNBA players play in Russia during the offseason as they have the option of being paid at a much higher rate. Griner earns $1 million per season playing in Russia, while she received a base salary of $221,450 from Mercury during the 2021-22 season.
“It’s a very delicate situation,” Mercury goalkeeper Diana Taurasi said. “I spent 10 years (in Russia), so I know how things work there.”
Taurasi also played for UMMC Yekaterinburg earlier in his career before announcing his retirement from international competition in 2017.
“It’s a dangerous world everywhere you go. It could change the perspective of different (WNBA players) going overseas,” she said. “It’s a personal choice that people are going to have to make.”
Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in a Russian prison as a criminal case has been opened for large-scale drug trafficking.
In March, Griner’s attorney, Alexander Boykov, requested that the two-time WNBA champion be placed under house arrest, but that request was denied.
Griner’s attorney also said Griner, who is 6-foot-9, was too tall for her prison bed and prison officials granted her a longer bed in March after she complained.
“The beds in the cell are clearly designed for a short person,” said Ekaterina Kalugina, a member of Moscow’s Public Supervision Commission who visited Griner at the detention center. told Russian media TASS.
Griner currently shares a cell with two Russian women who are also awaiting trial on similar drug-related charges.
The Russian women speak some English, and while the three are not friends, they are not enemies either, and they support each other, Boykov said.
Significant progress was made on May 3 in efforts to free Griner when the U.S. government intervened and declared Griner “wrongfully detained.”
“The State Department has determined that the Russian Federation wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” a State Department spokesperson said. told ESPN. “With this determination, the President’s Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs, Roger Carstens, will lead the interagency team tasked with securing the release of Brittney Griner.”
Former US ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, also agreed to help negotiate Griner’s release.
Richardson worked for years as a private hostage negotiator and helped negotiate the successful release of former US Marine Trevor Reed from Russia last month.
“The Russians were holding them, I think, as a bargaining chip,” Richardson told Bryant Gumbel in an interview on HBO’s “Real Sports” that aired May 24. “They want something in return. Usually another prisoner, a Russian, in the United States. I’m sure the Russians are going to ask for something in return, because Brittney Griner is very high profile.
Richardson added, “What makes this feasible is that the President of the United States is willing to consider prisoner swaps, which we haven’t (done) too much in the past.”
Since Griner is now classified as “wrongfully detained”, the US government is able to immediately try to negotiate her return instead of waiting for her trial in Russia to be completed.
On May 13, Griner had his pretrial detention in Russia extended for a month, Boykov told the Associated Press. Boykov believes the relatively short extension suggests Griner’s case will go to trial in mid-June.
May 3 also marked another significant change, as it allowed WNBA players and supporters in Congress to be informed that they had permission from the family to speak about Griner’s situation and to attract a additional attention to the case of Griner.
Until then, those close to Griner had followed State Department advice to remain silent so as not to make Griner a more valuable asset to the Russian government.
“We just have to keep praying for her,” Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham said. “We hope she is well. And that’s all we know. You know as much as we do. No one wants to be in his situation; we miss her like crazy.
A U.S. consular officer met with Griner on May 19 according to State Department spokesman Ned Price, and the officer said Griner “continued to do as well as expected under these extremely difficult circumstances.”
“I am in a position of complete vulnerability right now. I have to trust people I didn’t even know before Feb. 17,” Brittney’s wife Cherelle Griner said in an interview with “Good Morning America” co-host Robin Roberts that aired Wednesday.
“So I trust his lawyers. … ‘What does she look like? How is his mind? How is his energy? I’m just asking all these questions, just trying to get some type of cue or vibe. Some days they say, “She’s really strong. … She seemed in a good mood when we spoke. And sometimes they say, ‘His energy was really weak.’ »
Some have criticized President Joe Biden’s role in the process to bring Griner home, saying he’s not doing enough.
“There’s one person who can pick her up, and that’s our president,” Cherelle Griner told Angela Rye in an interview that aired Wednesday on ESPN. “He has that power. You know, I’m just like, ‘Why don’t we use it? Like, urgently, use it. We expect him to use his power to achieve this.
During the pre-game media availability ahead of Wednesday’s game against the Sparks, Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard also called on the Biden administration to act on the situation.
“I’m extremely hopeful that the Biden administration and Vice President Kamala Harris will step in and the State Department and really get things moving at this point,” Nygaard said. “We want Brittney at home. She’s not just there. She is a political prisoner and we really want them to push them to fight for this woman, our sister, a member of our family, our friend to help her get home. Please, please help her.
“I think President Biden is the leader of the free world and if he steps up and helps BG, we’ll bring BG home.”