On Thursday, December 8, 2022, WNBA Star Brittney Griner was released from prison in Mordiva, Russia (exact location unknown) around the early hours of the morning. Griner is a seven-time WNBA All-Star, WNBA Champion, former number one overall pick from the 2013 WNBA draft, and two-time Olympic gold medalist in women’s basketball. She was detained at a Russian airport back in February during the WNBA offseason after being discovered with THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as marijuana) cartridges in her luggage.
Below is a summary of important events leading up to her release.
After several months spent in various Russian detention centers, Griner was granted her trial in court. When making her plea, she pleaded guilty to the drug charges brought against her. Despite this, the Russian court still conducted a full trial, and she was found guilty. Judge Anna Sotnikova sentenced Griner to nine years and also fined her 1 million rubles (about $16,110).
Griner’s lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov filed an appeal after the trial, claiming that the sentence their client received was “excessive” and that others charged in similar cases usually receive an average sentencing of about five years. The Russian courts denied the appeal in October 2022.
At her lowest, Griner and many members of the sports community called on the United States government to take action and bring her home. Most athletes helped campaign for her release after her wrongful conviction. Athletes and fellow basketball players Stephen Curry, Skylar Diggins Smith, and Nneka Ogwumike advocated for her release at the 2022 ESPY awards, with a powerful speech delivered by the three of them. The WNBA and NBA have worked in conjunction with government officials to help bring her home.
The United States Government was not granted access to Griner until March, nearly a month after her detainment. While this was happening, Russia and its President Vladimir Putin started their invasion of Ukraine. A war that is being fought currently, which also made it harder to negotiate terms and work towards a solution with Russia due to the United States condemning the invasion of Ukraine.
United States President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with Griner’s wife Cherelle Griner at the White House in September. They discussed their current plans to get Brittney home and reassured Cherelle that they were working on a solution.
That same day, they met with Elizabeth Whelan, sister of another wrongfully convicted citizen and United States Marine Paul Whelan. Whelan was convicted of Espionage in December 2018 after Russian officials accused him of “spying” and was sentenced to 16 years in prison. He is another citizen for whose release people have campaigned, with little progress made. Russian officials have been strict towards any efforts for his release. Whelan has played a big part in the diplomatic actions to help bring Brittney home as well.
In June 2022, the United States submitted a secret offer to Russian officials offering a trade for both Griner and Whelan. The trade detailed the release of the two American citizens in exchange for Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout. He has the nickname “Merchant of Death” due to the large amounts of illegal weapons he trafficked.
Bout was arrested in Thailand in March 2008 during a U.S. sting operation in conjunction with the Royal Thai Police and was charged with terrorism in Thailand. He was then taken into custody and tried in the Manhattan federal court for conspiracy to kill U.S. officials and citizens, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles, and providing aid to a terrorist organization. He was then sentenced to the minimum 25 years.
After 10 months of negotiation and diplomacy, the United States and Russia came to a prisoner swap agreement. The U.S. received Brittney Griner and gave up Viktor Bout to Russia. The exchange took place during the early hours of Thursday, and officially marked the end of Griner’s long journey home.
This move is heavily criticized by many due to whom the United States gave up to Russia in exchange for Griner. Paul Whelan, whom we’ve discussed earlier, commented that he was ‘disappointed’ in the Government for not working harder towards his release as the 4 year anniversary of his detainment is coming up. President Joe Biden spoke to the media after the trade, and said that the United States will ‘never give up’ on Whelan’s release.
Griner is back home and landed in San Antonio on Friday, the day after her release.