WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner leaves a courtroom after a hearing Friday in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia. Griner was detained at the Moscow airport in February after vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis were allegedly found in her luggage, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. – Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko of The Associated Press
Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle, wants President Joe Biden to secure her partner’s release, doing whatever is necessary to get the WNBA star home from Russia where she has been detained for more than three months.
“I just keep hearing that, you know, he has the power. She’s a political pawn, ” said Cherelle, who became emotional detailing what little she knows about Griner’s detainment during an interview that aired Wednesday on Good Morning America. “So if they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it.”
The Phoenix Mercury center has been detained since Feb. 17 after vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis were allegedly found in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.
The 31-year-old Griner — a two-time Olympic gold medalist for the U.S. — faces drug smuggling charges that carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Earlier this month, the Biden administration said Griner is being wrongfully detained.
Cherelle has talked with Secretary of State Antony Blinken about Griner’s case, but not the president.
“I was grateful for the call, you say she’s top priority, but I wanna see it. and I feel like to see it would be me seeing BG on U.S. soil,” Cherelle said in her first public interview. “At this point I don’t even know who I’m getting back when she comes back.”
Russian officials have described Griner’s case as a criminal offense without making any political associations. But Moscow’s war in Ukraine has brought U.S.-Russia relations to the lowest level since the Cold War.
Despite the strain, Russia and the United States carried out an unexpected prisoner exchange last month — trading former Marine Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States.
While the U.S. does not typically embrace such exchanges, it made the deal in part because Yaroshenko had already served a long portion of his sentence.
The Russians may consider Griner someone who could figure into another such exchange.
Besides Griner, another American regarded as unjustly detained in Russia is Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan. Whelan was arrested in December 2018 while visiting for a friend’s wedding and was later sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage-related charges his family has said are bogus.
“Even though they’re separate people, separate roles, no connection besides what they’re going through in Russia, you know, I obviously want him back too,” Cherelle said. “You don’t want anybody to be there, going through what they’re going through.”
Cherelle, who graduated from law school at North Carolina Central University earlier this month, hasn’t talked on the phone with Griner since the day she was first detained.
“I first heard the news through Brittney, actually. She started texting me around 2:00 a.m. that morning,” Cherelle said. “‘Babe. Babe. Babe. Wake up. They have me in this room. I don’t know what’s going on.’ and so I instantly text back “Who are they and what room?”
Cherelle said Griner responded, texting: “The customs people. They just grabbed me when I was going through, and they have me in this room.” Griner then sent a message saying, “They’re about to take my phone.”
Cherelle said she told Griner to call her when she could. She’s still waiting for that call nearly 100 days later.
“The first week I laid on this couch and cried my eyeballs out. I was numb. I couldn’t move,” Cherelle said. “And then I said, ‘You got to get up now.'”
Cherelle and Brittney communicate through letters and her lawyers. The attorneys print out articles to show Griner so she can keep up-to-date with what’s going on.
Initially, friends and teammates of Griner were hesitant to talk about her situation for fear of interfering with the ongoing negotiations for her release. However, they began cautiously speaking out before the women’s Final Four in early April as her detention gained more national attention.
Cherelle became emotional when talking about the support and how it helps Griner stay strong during the struggle for her release. The WNBA has acknowledged the 6-foot-9 Mercury center’s absence by putting a decal with her initials and number on the home floor of all 12 teams.
“It comforts BG,” Cherelle said. “It let’s her know she’s not forgotten and … when you’re sitting over there, your country … they haven’t come … to your rescue yet. I know that it makes her feel good, Because she doesn’t want to be forgotten.
“Things like that matter, like, it has her hopeful,” Cherelle added. “It lets her know she’s not forgotten. Those small moments, I know give her some type of hope.”
Cherelle said that prior to the detention, Griner’s experience playing in Russia over the past nine years had been great. She was returning to the country after the Russian league took a break for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament when she was detained.
“You know you are a GOAT if you can actually play in Russia … on the team BG plays for,” Cherelle said. “They treat them like superstars.”
Griner, who won an NCAA championship at Baylor, earns over $1 million playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg to supplement her WNBA income where she is makes the maximum base salary of $228,000. Elite players like Griner can earn up to $500,000 with their salaries, bonuses and WNBA marketing contracts.
“BG would wholeheartedly love to not go overseas,” Cherelle said. “She has only had one Thanksgiving in the (United) States in nine years since she’s been a pro.”
The WNBA and U.S. officials have been working toward her release, without visible progress. A U.S. consular officer was able to meet with Griner last week.
“We did note that a consular official from our embassy in Moscow was able to visit with Brittney Griner on the margins of her court hearing in Moscow that day,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday. “We have made the point that one off consular visits are, in our view, not sufficient.
“But it’s not only in our view, it is in the requirements that are put forward by the Vienna Convention and other bilateral agreements that stipulate that we should have regular, sustained access to Americans who are held in detention around the world, including to those in pretrial detention.”
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.