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Nearly five months after being detained at a Russian airport for allegedly having a cannabis vape pen in her luggage, WNBA star Brittney Griner entered the courtroom in a suburb of Moscow sporting a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt.
Like many players in the WNBA, in February, Brittney Griner was returning to play for a Russian team during the WNBA off-season in a sport in which male athletes are paid far more for the same work.
The Phoenix Mercury center and two-time U.S. Olympic athlete faces 10 years in prison if convicted. According to the Associated Press, fewer than 1% of defendants in the Soviet country are acquitted, and even acquittals can be overturned, unlike in the U.S.
Per the AP, Elizabeth Rood, U.S. charge d’affaires in Moscow, was in court and spoke with Griner, who “is doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances.”
“The Russian Federation has wrongfully detained Brittney Griner,” Rood added. “The practice of wrongful detention is unacceptable wherever it occurs and is a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad.”
Trading Victor Bout for Griner might be only option
Arrested just days before Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, her case highlights the difficulties in gaining release of a U.S. prisoner during a time of war.
While the U.S. State Dept. reclassified her case as “wrongfully detained” months ago to allow for heightened attention and high-level negotiations on her behalf, Russian State Media has claimed the country might be willing to trade Brittney Griner for Victor Bout, a Russian imprisoned in the U.S.
Russian businessman and arms dealer Victor Bout was sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison for attempting to sell millions of dollars in weapons to Colombian terrorists and seeking to kill Americans, ABC News reported at the time.
Cherelle and Brittney Griner miss anniversary phone call
While the sports world has highlighted her case by displaying her jersey number on floor decals, Griner’s wife Cherelle wants President Biden to do more.
During the weekend of Juneteenth, the couple had a scheduled call via the U.S. embassy in Russia. Yet, the phone call marking their fourth anniversary never happened because the embassy wasn’t staffed. The U.S. State Dept. apologized for the error, but that was hardly satisfactory for Cherelle.
“I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now. If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home? Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call,” Cherelle Griner told the AP in a June 20 report.
Meanwhile, Russian officials have denied Brittney Griner’s detainment is politically motivated.
Brittney Griner’s wife is losing patience with U.S. leadership
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied politics played a role in Griner’s detention and prosecution on Friday. “The facts are that the famous athlete was detained in possession of prohibited medication containing narcotic substances,” Peskov told reporters. “In view of what I’ve said, it can’t be politically motivated,” he added.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, was asked recently by CNN whether a joint swap of Griner and fellow American detainee Paul Whelan for Victor Bout was being considered.