After being held for nearly 10 months in Russia, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner was released on Thursday, Dec. 8, in a prisoner swap for international arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to CBS News.
Griner, who was detained in February after the Russian Federal Customs Service claimed it found hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow, returned to the United States as part of a one-for-one prisoner exchange. That deal was negotiated in recent weeks before being given final approval from President Joe Biden.
Here are the latest details on the situation.
Why was Brittney Griner detained in Russia?
Griner, who has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Premier League during the WNBA offseason, was detained after customs service officials said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport. The customs service also released a video of an individual at the airport who appears to be Griner going through security.
Russian state TV showed a photo of Griner as part of a segment that aired on March 5. The photo was reportedly taken at a Russian police station.
Russian state TV has released a photo of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was arrested on drug charges in the country after Russian officials say cannabis oil was found in her luggage. CNN's @RosaFlores has the story. pic.twitter.com/SzB9MSSQfY— CNN (@CNN) March 8, 2022
A criminal case was opened into the “large-scale transportation of drugs, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years behind bars in Russia,” according to The New York Times.
What did the WNBA and Phoenix Mercury say about Brittney Griner’s detainment?
The WNBA announced on May 3 that it would feature Griner’s initials and jersey number (No. 42) on the sideline of all WNBA courts during the 2022 season. The league also granted the Mercury roster and salary cap relief so they could carry a replacement player. Griner was paid her full salary.
“As we begin the 2022 season, we are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball and in the community,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement. “We continue to work on bringing Brittney home and are appreciative of the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily challenging time.”
The WNBA’s announcement on May 3 was the latest in a series of public statements released since the original reporting of her detainment.
“Brittney Griner has the WNBA’s full support and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States.”
“We are aware of and are closely monitoring the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia. We remain in constant contact with her family, her representation, the WNBA and NBA. We love and support Brittney and at this time our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home.”
“We are aware of the situation in Russia concerning one of our members, Brittney Griner. Our utmost concern is BG’s safety and well-being. On behalf of The 144, we send our love and support. We will continue to closely monitor and look forward to her return to the U.S.”
“USA Basketball is aware of and closely monitoring the legal situation facing Brittney Griner in Russia. Brittney has always handled herself with the utmost professionalism during her long tenure with USA Basketball and her safety and well-being are our primary concerns.”
Are there any other WNBA players in Russia?
A league spokesperson told The New York Times on March 5 that all WNBA players other than Griner were out of Russia and Ukraine.
Why do WNBA players compete in Russia?
Many WNBA players, including the league’s biggest stars, have gone overseas during the offseason because international leagues offer much higher salaries than the WNBA.
Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, who has also played for UMMC Ekaterinburg, earns approximately $1.5 million per season overseas compared to a WNBA supermax salary of $228,094. After signing a one-year deal with the Storm, Stewart expressed her concerns about recent changes to the collective bargaining agreement that push players to prioritize the WNBA over other leagues.
“Prioritization is, like, the biggest topic of conversation in the WNBA for me, especially in the next couple of years,” Stewart said in February. “To be able to play overseas at UMMC Ekaterinburg, where basketball is very valued, we’re treated really well and able to make a lot of money, it’s just hard for me. With the prioritization, you’re cutting off one of my sources of income and not substituting it.
“That’s something that needs to be kind of figured out. I don’t have a great answer for what’s going to happen. But I think it’s going to affect a lot more players in the WNBA than people think right now.”
When was Brittney Griner sent to prison?
A judge in Russia convicted Griner of drug possession and smuggling on Aug. 4 and sentenced her to nine years in prison, bringing an end to her trial. Prosecutors had asked the court to sentence Griner to nine-and-a-half years in prison, according to The Associated Press.
Legal experts viewed a verdict as a formality because the length of her detainment was going to be determined by negotiations on a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Russia.
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” President Biden said in a statement. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
After Griner’s appeal was rejected on Oct. 25, she was transferred to a Russian penal colony, but her Russian legal team didn’t know where she was going, according to ESPN. The transfer process reportedly began on Nov. 4. Griner’s attorneys and U.S. officials were not aware that Griner had been moved until Nov. 8.
“Every minute that Brittney Griner must endure wrongful detention in Russia is a minute too long,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement. “As the Administration continues to work tirelessly to secure her release, the President has directed the Administration to prevail on her Russian captors to improve her treatment and the conditions she may be forced to endure in a penal colony.
“As we have said before, the U.S. Government made a significant offer to the Russians to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions of American citizens. In the subsequent weeks, despite a lack of good faith negotiation by the Russians, the U.S. Government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with the Russians through all available channels.”
When was Brittney Griner released?
Griner was released on Dec. 8 in a prisoner exchange that took place in the United Arab Emirates, per CBS News. In order to bring Griner back to the U.S., President Biden freed Bout, who had been serving a 25-year prison sentence after he was convicted of conspiring to kill Americans.
In a tweet posted that morning, President Biden confirmed that he had spoken to Griner alongside her wife, Cherelle Griner, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner,” President Biden said in the tweet. “She is safe. She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”
Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner.— President Biden (@POTUS) December 8, 2022
She is safe.
She is on a plane.
She is on her way home. pic.twitter.com/FmHgfzrcDT
He added that his administration is still negotiating the release of Paul Whelan, a former Marine who has been jailed in Russia for four years on espionage charges. Whelan and the U.S. government have consistently denied those charges.
“I am so glad that Brittney Griner is on her way home,” David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said in a statement (via ABC News). “As the family member of a Russian hostage, I can literally only imagine the joy she will have, being reunited with her loved ones, and in time for the holidays.
“There is no greater success than for a wrongful detainee to be freed and for them to go home. The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.
“This time, U.S. government officials let us know in advance that Paul would be left behind, unlike last April when they left him. That early warning meant that our family has been able to mentally prepare for what is now a public disappointment for us. And a catastrophe for Paul.”