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Brittney Griner unable to speak with wife on anniversary

Calls to embassy phone in Moscow went unanswered on Saturday

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MOSCOW — A State Department spokesperson on Tuesday admitted a “logistical error” prevented detained WNBA star Brittney Griner from speaking with her wife over the weekend.

Cherelle Griner told the Associated Press that her wife’s lawyers said she tried to call her 11 times “over a period of several hours” on Saturday, which was the couple’s fourth anniversary.

The AP reported the Russian government approved the call.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow, according to the AP, had given Brittney Griner a number that was to have allowed her to connect to her wife in Phoenix once an embassy staffer received the call. The AP reported each of the calls that Brittney Griner made went unanswered because nobody was at the desk where the phone was located. 

“I was distraught. I was hurt. I was done, fed up,” Cherelle Griner told the AP. “I’m pretty sure I texted BG’s agent and was like: ‘I don’t want to talk to anybody. It’s going to take me a minute to get my emotions together, and just tell everybody I’m unavailable right now.’ Because it just knocked me out. I wasn’t well, I’m still not well.”

Cherelle Griner said the call had been on her schedule for two weeks. She told the AP that she is “very pissed” about what happened.

“We deeply regret that Brittney Griner was unable to speak with her wife because of a logistical error,” the State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade on Tuesday in a statement.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Brittney Griner — a center for the Phoenix Mercury — after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department has determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

“We cannot call her a hostage,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told NBC News’ Keir Simmons on Monday. “She violated Russian law and now she is being prosecuted.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 14 spoke with Cherelle Griner. 

Officials with the State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs on June 13 met with Brittney Griner’s teammates to discuss her detention and efforts to secure her release. A Russian court the following day extended Brittney Griner’s detention through at least July 2.

“We are determined to bring her home along with Paul (Whelan, an American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia after a court convicted him of spying) and for that matter, any and every American who is being unjustly detained anywhere in the world,” said Blinken on June 15 during a roundtable with this reporter and five other LGBTQ and intersex journalists. ” “It’s something that I am personally focused on, and I want to leave it at that because it is obviously an ongoing issue. But just know that this is a matter of intense focus for us.”

The State Department spokesperson reiterated this point.

“We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” said the spokesperson. “We remain in regular contact with the families of those held hostage or wrongfully detained; we are grateful for their partnership and feedback; and we continue to work to ensure we are communicating and sharing information in a way useful to our families.”

Cherelle Griner told the AP that she no longer trusts the U.S. government.

“I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now,” she said. “If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home? Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call.”

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Russia

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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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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