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Brittney Griner: Everything We Know About the WNBA Star Detained in Russia

She could face 10 years in a Russian prison.
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On July 7, WNBA star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to smuggling drug products into Russia, where she has been detained for the past several months, Reuters reported. The New York Times notes that she faces up to 10 years in a penal colony if formally convicted and sentenced.

The WNBA player was first arrested on February 17 at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow for possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. She had arrived in Russia from New York to compete during her WNBA off-season. (Many players, including her Phoenix Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi, play in Russia during the winter to earn more money.) 

Griner has been detained since her arrest nearly five months ago; she has not been able to see or communicate freely with her family, friends, or teammates. While pleading guilty in court on July 7, she held up a photo of her and her wife.

Below is everything we know about Brittney Griner's arrest, detainment, and ongoing legal battle in Russia.

According to Griner, the whole situation was an accident.

During her court appearance, the two-time Olympian told the Russian court she “had no intention of breaking any Russian law,” and accidentally packed her vape cartridges while in a rush, according to the Reuters report. When asked why she pleaded guilty, Griner's lawyers said the athlete recognizes her status as a role model and would like to acknowledge her mistakes, even if bringing cannabis oil into the country was done so unintentionally.

Since her arrest, Griner has been held in Russian prison for four and a half months.

The United States government has been classifying Griner's detainment overseas as unlawful, according to The Washington Post. Fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in the U.S., acquittals can be overturned, per the Associated Press. In late June, her detention was extended until December 20, 2022. 

“President Biden has been clear about the need to see all U.S. nationals who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad released, including Brittney Griner,” Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for the National Security Council, told the Post. “The U.S. government continues to work aggressively—using every available means—to bring her home.” 

She faces 10 years in prison for drug charges. 

Griner's crime holds a sentence related to large-scale transportation of drugs, the Associated Press reported. Russia's drug policies are some of the strictest in the world, and the country has one of the highest imprisonment rates for drug crimes in Europe, according to The Moscow Times.

The vape cartridge Griner was stopped with at the airport contained cannabis oil, per The New York Times. Russian forces say it was a significant amount of drugs, although the exact quantity hasn't been released yet.

Griner and her family have pleaded with the U.S. government to bring her home safely.

The athlete begged President Biden to do something about the situation via a handwritten note, according to CNBC. Griner revealed she's “terrified” she'll never be able to get out of Russian prison, and turned to the president and his administration for help. 

“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don't forget about me and the other American detainees,” Griner wrote on July 4, days before she pleaded guilty. “Please do all you can to bring us home.”

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris assured Griner’s family they’re doing everything they can.

Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, wasn't able to speak to Brittney via phone call after an “unfortunate mistake” by the United States embassy in Russia, per the Associated Press. However, Cherelle did get on a phone call with Biden and Harris, who reassured her that they were working on bringing her wife back home. 

The call came a day after Cherelle told Gayle King on an episode of CBS Mornings that she was disappointed by the administration's silence. 

“I will not be quiet anymore,” she said. “I will find that balance of, you know, harm versus help in pushing our government to do everything that's possible because being quiet, they're not moving, they're not doing anything. So my wife is struggling, and we have to help her.” 

Analysts speculate that in order to secure Griner’s safe return, the U.S. will have to trade one of its Russian prisoners.

People reports that the two governments are likely to exchange prisoners to get what they want. In order for Griner to come home, Ivan Melnikov, vice president of the Russian section of the International Human Rights Commission, told the outlet in early July that Russia is likely to ask for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer. Bout, nicknamed the Merchant of Death, is currently serving 25 years in American prison after conspiring to sell weapons to people who threatened to kill Americans. 

On July 27, 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the Biden administration presented a “substantial proposal” to Russia “weeks ago.” The same day an unnamed source told CNN that this trade was for Griner and Paul Whelan, an accused spy who was arrested in Russia at the end of 2018. In exchange, the U.S. offered Viktor Bout, the Russian arms trafficker.

This wouldn't be the first time the United States and Russia did a prisoner swap. In April of this year, Trevor Reed, a former Marine, was released from Russian prison after nearly three years when Biden commuted the sentence for Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was arrested on drug trafficking charges, per NPR. 

The Department of Justice is generally against prisoner trades.

The ball is now in Russia's court, and experts say that a deal can't be finalized until after the end of Griner's trial, which is ongoing.