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Who is Brittney Griner and why has she been detained in Russia?

Brittney Griner, an American basketball player, could spend ten years in prison after pleading guilty at a Russian court to drug possession charges.

Griner was taken into custody in Moscow in February after officers found cannabis oil vape canisters in her luggage.

The US government is now under increasing pressure to secure her freedom after she was “wrongfully” detained.


Brittney Griner: Who are you?

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Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, is one of the most highly-paid women’s basketball players in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). She has been praised for her dunking skills.

The 31-year old is 6ft 9 inches tall and plays for Phoenix Mercury, an Arizona-based team.

Cherelle, a Texas-born athlete, is her husband. She met Cherelle at university. Cherelle describes her as her “best friend” in life and her “love of my life”.

Nneka Ogwumike, a fellow WNBA star, hailed Griner as an American hero in the wake the charges against her.


What are her charges?

Griner was returning to Russia’s basketball game when he was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

Later, she was charged with deliberately importing narcotics in the country. plead guilty to drug possession and smuggling . This happened on the second day of her trial.

The athlete claimed that she did not intend to commit a crime, but had acted unintentionally after packing for her trip from Moscow in a rush.

Image of Griner at a WNBA basketball tournament in Las Vegas last October Pics: AP

Last week, she told the court: “I would like to plead guilty. Your honor.” There was no intention. “I didn’t intend to violate the law.”

Lawyers now hope that the sportswoman will be sentenced to the shortest possible sentence.


Why is she stuck in Russia, anyway?

Griner’s arrest was authorized up to 20 December. This raised concerns that the trial could go on for months.

Senior Russian diplomats said that no action could take place until the trial is over.

In Russia, media speculate that she could be traded with Viktor Bout (nicknamed The Merchant of Death), a Russian arms trader.

Bout is currently serving a 25 year sentence in the US for conspiracy to kill American citizens as well as providing assistance to terrorist organisations. The Kremlin has been calling for his release for years.

Griner may also be offered for trade along with other US citizens who are believed to have been “wrongly held” by Moscow, including Paul Whelan, a former marine.

Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage charges. Washington referred to Whelan as a “set up”.

Image Brittney griner could spend 10 years behind bars


What can the White House do to help?

Elizabeth Rood (Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Moscow) said that Griner is “eating well, able read books, and doing well” under these circumstances.

President Joe Biden called Griner’s wife Wednesday to assure her that he is doing everything he can to get her out.

After Mr Biden had received a letter from a basketball pro, expressing concerns that she might never return home, the phone call was made.

Image by Griner’s wife Cherelle

She wrote: “…As a Russian prisoner, alone with my thoughts, and without protection from my family, friends, or any achievements, I am afraid I might stay here forever.

“On the Fourth of July, our family honors those who served our freedom. My father, a Vietnam War veteran, is one such example.

It hurts to think about how I celebrate this day, because freedom is something entirely different for me this year.

Ms. Rood stated to reporters that she wanted to reiterate the US government’s commitment to Ms. Griner and all US citizens wrongfully held, as well as the commitment by the US Embassy to Moscow to protect and care for the rights of all US citizens imprisoned or detained in Russia.

Image: Griner, taken at a Khimki hearing, just outside Moscow. Pic: AP


What does Russia have to say?

Sergei Ryabkov (Russian deputy foreign minister) earlier warned that the White House’s “attempts to make noise in the public… won’t help with the practical settlement of these issues.”

He said that US criticism, including Griner’s description as “wrongfully held”, makes it difficult to have a detailed discussion about possible exchanges.

When Mr Ryabkov was asked about Griner’s possibility of being swapped for a Russian prisoner, he replied that there were no formal or procedural reasons to discuss any further steps until the trial had concluded.

This case is being investigated amid tensions between Washington and Moscow over Vladimir Putin invasion of Ukraine.

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