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U.S. official meets with Brittney Griner in Russia

Consular visit took place on May 19

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MOSCOW — A U.S. consular official on May 19 visited detained WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Friday told reporters during a virtual briefing the officer “found her continuing to do as well as could be expected under these exceedingly challenging circumstances.” The officer met with Griner two days after U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said Russian officials had denied consular visits with her three times this month.

“Our message is a clear and simple one,” said Price. “We continue to insist that Russia allow consistent and timely consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees. One-off visits are not sufficient, and we will continue to call on Moscow to uphold its commitments under the Vienna Convention for consistent and timely access as well.”

Griner — a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife — was taken into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Russian officials said customs inspectors found hashish oil in her luggage.

The State Department has determined Russia “wrongfully detained” Griner. 

A Russian court on May 13 extended her detention for another month. The Women’s National Basketball Players Association, a union that represents WNBA players, has endorsed a petition that urges the Biden administration to “prioritize” Griner’s release.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, on May 14.

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Brittney Griner appeals 9-year prison sentence in Russia

Russian court on Aug. 4 convicted WNBA star of drug smuggling.

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A Brittney Griner mural in D.C. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

MOSCOW — Lawyers for WNBA star Brittney Griner on Monday appealed the nine-year prison sentence she received earlier this month after a Russian court convicted her of smuggling drugs into the country.

The court on Aug. 4 convicted Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner — and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Brittney Griner after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department subsequently determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

Brittney Griner in July pleaded guilty to the drug smuggling charges.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying.

American officials have reportedly expressed a willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a prisoner swap.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week said his country was “ready to discuss” a potential deal with the U.S. A spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry later confirmed negotiations between the two countries over a potential prisoner swap have begun.

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Russia

Russian official confirms negotiations over WNBA star Brittney Griner 

Speaking publicly last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had confirmed that he was “ready to discuss” a potential deal

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Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev (Screenshot/YouTube)

MOSCOW – Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev told Russian reporters in a press briefing on Thursday, that negotiations are underway to release WNBA star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan in a prisoner exchange.

Speaking publicly last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had confirmed that he was “ready to discuss” a potential deal, however, the comments today from his spokesperson were the first public acknowledgement that talks were ongoing.

According to Nechayev, the talks are happening within the parameters previously set for diplomatic communications between the two super-powers by Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Joe Biden.

“We proceed from the fact that the negotiations should take the interests of both sides into account,” he stressed to reporters “We would recommend abandoning futile attempts to put pressure on us and we are calling on them to concentrate on practical work along the available channels. There is no other way,” Nechayev added.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had previously acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying.

Nechayev had noted that the exchange of prisoners was one of the topics discussed in a telephone conversation between the Russian Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State in late July.

Although specific details have not been made public, U.S. officials had offered Moscow to exchange Russian businessman Viktor Bout, who is serving a prison term in the US for arms trafficking, for Griner, sentenced to jail for drugs trafficking, and Whelan, a former U.S. Marine and American businessman, convicted in Russia of spying.

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Brittney Griner convicted in Russia

WNBA star sentenced to nine years in penal colony

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MOSCOW — A Russian court on Thursday found WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty of charges that she smuggled drugs into the country.

The court sentenced Griner to nine years in a Russian penal colony. Prosecutors had sought a 9 1/2-year prison sentence.

Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner — spoke in court earlier on Thursday.

“I had no intent on breaking any Russian law,” said Brittney Griner.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Brittney Griner after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department subsequently determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

Brittney Griner last month pleaded guilty to the drug smuggling charges.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying.

American officials have reportedly expressed a willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a prisoner swap.

“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,” said President Joe Biden in a statement after Brittney Griner’s conviction and sentencing. “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.”

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby during the White House’s daily press briefing described the sentence as “reprehensible in its scope” and stressed Griner “shouldn’t have even been on trial.”

“I certainly can’t get inside the head of a Russian judge,” said Kirby. “We have seen similar maximum sentences for drug charges of foreigners in Russia. Just historically speaking, foreigners that are arrested on drug charges and then convicted under their system tend to get much higher sentences than would be Russian citizens.”

Elizabeth Rood, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, described the verdict as “a miscarriage of justice” in a statement she read to reporters outside the court. Blinken in his own statement agreed.

“Today’s conviction and sentencing by a Russian court of U.S. citizen Brittney Griner to nine years in prison further compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention,” said Blinken. “This step puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns.”    

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a joint statement after the court announced its verdict and sentencing.

“Today’s verdict and sentencing is unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained,” reads the statement. “The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”

The Human Rights Campaign also condemned the conviction and sentencing.

“This sentencing is unjust, plain and simple,” tweeted HRC. “Brittney Griner deserves to be back home with her family and loved ones.”

Blinken said “nothing about today’s decision changes our determination that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained, and we will continue working to bring Brittney and fellow wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan home.” 

“This is an absolute priority of mine and the department’s,” he stressed.

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