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Wearing a blue and yellow “We stand with Ukraine” button, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX-18) demanded Russia release WNBA player and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner in a fiery speech on Saturday broadcast by FOX 26 Houston.
For weeks, Griner has been detained in a Moscow prison over allegations she had a vape pen containing THC extracts in her luggage. On Tuesday, CNN reported that Russian State TV had released the first booking photo of Griner since her arrest last month.
While the alleged offense might seem minor to most Americans, experts on Race and Blackness in Eastern Europe have warned that Brittney Griner faces a drug trafficking charge, which could carry a minimum sentence of five to 10 years in the Russian Federation.
“We know that there were some issues dealing with vape cartridges and other items, but let me be very clear, Brittney Griner is a United States citizen. She was a guest in Russia with the WNBA…and I will be demanding her release,” Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee said at the Houston press conference.
She said she spoke to the State Department to “try to get them to focus on her circumstance.”
State Department makes statement
Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the country’s top diplomat, spoke out about Griner’s situation.
“Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance,” Blinken said, according to a video shared by ESPN. Yet, securing the release of other American prisoners in Russia has already proved difficult.
U.S. Marines Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan remain trapped in Russia on trumped up charges after initially traveling to the country to visit loved ones. A meeting last year in Geneva between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to deliver results, according to an ABC News report.
Russia continues attack on Ukraine while Brittney Griner lies in limbo
Meanwhile, Putin continues to lead its country into an unprovoked attack on the sovereign nation of Ukraine in a now 13-day conflict that has already resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, including children.
In fact, even after a third round of talks between President Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky over allowing humanitarian corridors for fleeing civilians, residents in the port city of Mariupol continue to face Russian attacks. They’ve been cut off from food, water, and energy for more than a week, Reuters reports.
On Tuesday, the United States took the drastic step of announcing a ban on Russian oil imports as countries around the world cut off Russia financially. Russian President Putin, who continues to claim his “special military operation” is an attempt to “denazify” Ukraine, warned that sanctions against its country are “akin to a declaration of war.”
The dangerous escalation of rhetoric from former Soviet spy didn’t stop Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee from calling out Putin directly in her speech on Saturday.
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee calls out Putin
Brittney Griner, a lesbian Black woman who stands 6’9’’, represents a multitude of identities that places her at higher risk for mistreatment in a Russian prison.
“I don’t wanna disregard a sovereign nation, but Putin has disregarded sovereign nations his entire service in this world. And anyone that is killing, and attacking, and destroying Ukraine, their neighboring country that has not wronged them, has no right to hold Ms. Griner. Period,” Rep. Jackson-Lee said.
“If there are challenges and concerns about her actions, it should be dealt with diplomatically, and she should be released.”
Phoenix Mercury player Brittney Griner, a seven time WNBA all-star center, led the U.S. to two Olympic gold medals in 2016 and 2021. She’s been playing in Russian during the offseason for Ekaterinburg since 2015, earning a much higher salary than she receives in the U.S.
Yet, despite the attention on her case, Russian State TV’s release of a photo of Griner has raised concerns that the Kremlin will attempt to use her case as leverage amidst the largest European conflict since World War II.
Brittney Griner’s wife reacts
On Saturday, Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle, released a statement on Instagram thanking supporters for their prayers.
“Thank you to everyone who has reached out to me regarding my wife’s safe return from Russia. Your prayers and support are greatly appreciated. I love my wife wholeheartedly, so this message comes during one of the weakest moments of my life,” Griner wrote. “I understand that many of you have grown to love BG over the years and have concerns and want details. Please honor our privacy as we continue to work on getting my wife home safely.”
More than a dozen WNBA players planned to play in Russia and Ukraine during the winter. The WNBA confirmed that all players, aside from Brittney Griner, had already left.