Menu Menu

The Brittney Griner situation explained

US Basketball champion and Olympic gold medallist Brittney Griner has been detained in a Russian prison since February under drug smuggling charges. 

This week, WNBA All-star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges held against her by Russian authorities. Her plea follows months of detainment in a Russian prison, after vape cartridges containing traces of marijuana were found in her luggage at Sheremetyevo airport.

Griner has been on trial for ‘large-scale transportation of drugs’, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison under Russian law.

Her family and fellow basketball players have since made desperate pleas to the US government, urging the Biden administration to secure Brittney’s safe return home. But her case has only recently started to grasp the attention of the international press.

After four months trapped on Russian soil, Griner’s guilty plea appears to be tactical. Many predict her case will end in conviction, and the chances of her avoiding prison under a not-guilty plea were slim.

Despite stating her guilt, Griner told the court ‘there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law. I’d like to give my testimony later. I need time to prepare.’ Her statements were translated to Russian for court proceedings.

Griner’s case is complex because, mere weeks after her arrest, Russian forces invaded Ukraine. The basketball star has now become a pawn in Russia’s war tactic. And given that Griner is a Black queer woman – two identities perennially marginalised in Russia – concern has mounted about her treatment and the prospect of a safe release.

US government officials believe the outcome may involve a trade, with the Kremlin demanding the release of a Russian prisoner currently being held in the US.

Ambassador Michael McFaul told MSNBC that he suspects Viktor Bout, an ex-arms dealer convicted of heinous war crimes in 2008, is the man Russia has set their sights on. However no terms conditional to her release have yet been confirmed.

The prospect of a trade between Griner and Bout is jarring in that it suggests both individuals are at all comparable.

Given the severity of Bout’s record – which earned him the nickname ‘the merchant of death’ – it’ll be a difficult decision for the US government. One that could take months to finalise.

Brittney’s wife, Cherelle, has been spearheading efforts to raise awareness of her case. Unable to speak with her wife since February, Cherelle has heard updates via the press.

This week, she shared that ‘BG is struggling, she’s human’, after Griner sent a handwritten letter to President Biden asking for help in her release.

Brittney’s letter was delivered to the White House by her representatives last week, and White House officials state the President has read it. The note, excerpts of which were shared by the press, publicly revealed Griner’s mental state for the first time.

‘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’s letter captures an issue central to her case, that other US detainees are still being held by Russian forces – some a staggering four years after their arrest – and are yet to be released.

‘[I ask that President Biden doesn’t] forget about me and the other American detainees’, Brittney stated.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to Griner’s wife over the phone this week, reassuring her family and friends that they are working to release Brittney ‘as soon as possible’. 

But Griner’s case remains swathed in political tension. The US continues to openly support Ukraine in its fight against Russia – having supplied them with billions of dollars in weapons and resources.

As Brittney’s family, friends and peers continue to fight for justice, the American government is yet to make public any strategy they have for her safe release.


Thred Newsletter!

Sign up to our planet-positive newsletter