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American basketball star Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia since February. She has been facing drug possession charges for carrying vape cartridges in her luggage that contained cannabis oil. The charges carry a potential sentence of up to 10 years in jail.
Griner pleaded guilty to the drug charges in Russian court Thursday, while stressing that she had packed in a hurry and not intended to break Russian law. Regardless of Thursday’s plea, observers have not expected Griner to receive justice in the Russian legal system.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has accurately called her a “political pawn” caught up in the fraught relationship between the U.S. and Russia amid the latter’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine. There should be little doubt that Griner’s detention is bigger than vape cartridges.
With frustrations increasingly being voiced by Griner’s family that President Joe Biden and his administration haven’t been doing enough to help her, Griner sent a letter to Biden on Monday asking for assistance for herself and other American detainees. For example, Paul Whelan, who also previously served in the Marines, was accused of being a spy and sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020.
“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner wrote in her July 4 letter to Biden.
Marine veteran Trevor Reed knows a thing or two about what Griner and Whelan are going through. Reed was detained in Russia for three years before being released in April as part of a prisoner exchange.
“There is no justice in Russia,” Reed told CNN in June. “Brittney and Paul will not receive justice in Russia. They’re not going to receive a fair trial, they will not receive a fair investigation. They will be there as hostages until the United States gets them out.”
He added that Griner was likely to be treated worse in Russia because of her race and sexual orientation, saying that the country “systematically discriminates” against Black and LGBTQ+ people.
There is only so much the Biden administration can do with Griner in the custody of an authoritarian government known for making examples out of political prisoners, and likely looking for a bargaining chip as it continues its barbaric invasion of Ukraine. Though as demonstrated by Reed’s release, there are options. It must not take three years.
At the very least, for now, Biden and his team can control how they communicate and reassure Griner’s family. And on that front, it seems the administration had been coming up short.
Griner’s family and friends had criticized the Biden administration’s handling of her case, and called for the president to meet with them. On Wednesday, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris finally had a phone call with Cherelle Griner.
“The president called Cherelle to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world,” the White House said in a statement after the call. “He also read her a draft of the letter the president is sending to Brittney today.”
That statement also noted that top administration officials have already had calls with Cherelle Griner in recent weeks, and said Biden has directed his national security team to stay in “regular contact” with the Griner family. A U.S. diplomat said they delivered Biden’s letter to Griner at Thursday’s proceedings.
Biden’s call with Griner’s wife was an initial step, and the ultimate goal must be a quick release for Griner and other political prisoners. There is much work left for the administration to do, including a continual commitment to assure Griner’s family that the U.S. is exploring all possible options to secure her release. And hopefully the attention will elevate the pressure to help return other Americans like Whelan as well.
“Write them, call them, annoy them, don’t leave them alone,” Reed said in June about pressuring federal representatives to act. “Tell them you want Brittney home and you want the rest of the Americans who are being wrongfully detained home, and you want it done now.”
Add us to the list of people looking to raise the pressure on the Biden administration to bring home wrongfully detained Americans like Griner, who are essentially hostages, and to bring them home quickly.