Brittney Griner Released by Russia in Prisoner Swap; Here’s What to Know

Brittney Griner Released by Russia in Prisoner Swap; Here’s What to Know

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - OCTOBER 10: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury durring pregame warmups at Footprint Center on October 10, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Mattina/Getty Images)

After nearly 10 months being held in Russia, Brittney Griner was released from captivity on Thursday, Dec. 8. The American WNBA star was freed as part of a swap; President Joe Biden agreed to release imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in order to bring Griner home.

In a tweet posted on Thursday morning, President Biden said, “Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner. She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.” Included in the tweet were two photos of Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner’s wife, in the Oval Office with Vice President Kamala Harris and President Biden.

The American professional basketball player has been detained in Russia since Feb. 2022 and was convicted of drug smuggling in Aug. 2022, after cannabis oil was found on her person. Russian penal colonies are known for harsh conditions, such as inmate manual labor and poor access to medical care, according to CNN.

Griner had been sentenced to nine years in the Russian penal colony in August, a decision that was upheld in October when she tried to appeal the ruling. The basketball star’s initial detention came at the same time as US sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

Many athletes and celebrities, including Stephen Curry, LeBron James, and Nneka Ogwumike, have stood by Griner during the past 10 months, using their platforms to bring awareness to her situation and call for her release.

Here’s everything we know about what led to Griner’s detention, and what might be coming next.

Why Was Brittney Griner in Russia?

Griner flew to Russia to play on the UMMC Ekaterinburg team. The 31-year-old has been a member of the Russian basketball team for several WNBA off-seasons. But this particular trip came at a tense time; Griner was detained shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine. The US State Department had issued a “Do Not Travel” advisory weeks earlier, citing the ongoing tension.

The two-time Olympian might have chosen to play overseas during this off-season for many different reasons — including to earn some extra cash. WNBA players typically earn between $60,000 and $229,000, while NBA players can earn upward of $40 million. According to an Associated Press report, “[a]lmost half of the WNBA’s 144 players” went overseas during the 2022 off-season, with high-ranking athletes earning more than $1 million. WNBA athlete Liz Cambage said on “NBA Today” that she is able to earn “five to eight times more” by playing overseas.

Why Was Brittney Griner Detained?

In her first court appearance, Griner was accused of transporting a “significant amount” of cannabis oil, per The Washington Post. The charges allege that before traveling to Russia in February, Griner “bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil,” as reported by Russian state news agency TASS. In her July 7 hearing, Griner told the court that she did not purposely break the law. “I’d like to plead guilty, your [honor]. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner said, per Reuters. Griner’s lawyers also told Russian judges in another hearing that the cannabis was prescribed for medicinal use for “severe chronic pain,” according to CNN.

“We continue to insist that, by indiscretion, in a hurry, she packed her suitcase and did not pay attention to the fact that substances allowed for use in the United States ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation,” Boykov stated, according to CNN.

On June 27, Griner opened up about her initial detainment at the airport. She testified that she was forced to sign documents without understanding what they said, per CNN. Griner said that she was not read her rights and that she tried to use Google Translate on her phone to understand the documents but “barely knew what was in them.” After the first round of paperwork, Griner said she was later taken to another room, her phone was taken away, and she was forced to sign even more confusing documents with no explanation. Griner said no attorney was present.

Nearly two months later, on Aug. 4, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian court for smuggling drugs into the country. President Joe Biden released a statement regarding Griner’s sentencing: “Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

But on Oct. 25, Griner was given more bad news when a Russian court denied her sentence appeal. The court called the original nine-year sentence “fair,” according to CNBC. “[Griner] had some hope but that vanished today,” Blagovolina told reporters outside the courtroom that day, according to CNBC.

When Was Brittney Griner Released?

The news of Griner’s release broke on the morning of Thursday, Dec 8. As early as August 2022, Russia had confirmed it was in prisoner-swap negotiations with the United States. At the time, President Biden had reportedly offered convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout (currently serving out a 25-year sentence in the United States) in exchange for Griner and American Paul Whelan, who’s also imprisoned in Russia, according to CNN. But while Griner was released, Whelan was not, reports The New York Times.

From the start, the situation sparked outrage among Griner’s family, fellow players, fans, human-rights organizations, and more, all of whom were calling for the basketball star’s release. A #FreeBrittneyGriner movement emerged on social media. And on June 22, several groups, including the National Organization For Women, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Urban League, and the National Action Network, banded together to send a letter to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, per The New York Times. The letter urged the administration “to make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely.”

In July 2022, Griner herself pleaded to the president directly in a handwritten letter. She expressed that she was “terrified I might be here forever,” reports CNN. “I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees,” Griner said. “Please do all you can to bring us home.”

“It’s like a movie for me. I’m like, ‘In no world did I ever thought, you know, our president and a foreign nation president would be sitting down having to discuss the freedom of my wife,'” Griner’s wife Cherelle said in an interview with Gayle King on “CBS Mornings” in early October 2022. “It feels to me as if she’s a hostage.”

Cherelle continued, “I mean, this is my life and so I’m sitting there like, ‘Do we get her back? Do I ever get to see my wife again?’ Like, what happens here? The fact that everything’s so unprecedented and everything’s, like, changeable I think is a really good word. Like, I feel like every day I’m hearing something new, and so it’s just kind of like, it’s terrifying.”

What Is Hash Oil?

Hash oil is extracted from cannabis, an illegal substance in Russia. Under Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code, someone who commits an offense related to the “illegal acquisition, storage, transportation, making or processing of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances or analogues thereof” could face up to 10 years in prison.

— Additional reporting by Alexis Jones, Lauren Mazzo, Sara Youngblood Gregory, and Mirel Zaman