President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke on Wednesday with Cherelle Griner, the wife of WNBA star and Olympic champion Brittney Griner, who has been held in a Russian prison on charges of bringing cannabis oil vape cartridges into the country since February. The telephone conversation between Biden, Harris, and Cherelle Griner came only days after the president received a hand-written letter from Brittney Griner pleading with him to intervene on her behalf and that of other Americans being held by foreign governments.
“The President called Cherelle to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittneys release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other US nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world,” the White House said in a statement published by CNN. “He also read her a draft of the letter the President is sending to Brittney Griner today.”
The statement from the White House added that Biden “offered his support to Cherelle and Brittney’s family, and he committed to ensuring they are provided with all possible assistance while his administration pursues every avenue to bring Brittney home.”
The White House also said that Biden had responded to the letter Griner sent from Russia last week, noting that the president had received the letter on Monday’s Independence Day holiday. The statement added that Biden shared his response with Cherelle Griner during their conversation.
Basketball Star Arrested in February
Griner is a seven-time WNBA All-Star center who has played for the Phoenix Mercury since the 2013 season, including the team’s 2014 league championship squad. She has also twice won the Olympic gold medal with the U.S. women’s basketball team.
Griner has played seven seasons of professional basketball in Russia during the WNBA’s off-season, a practice common among the league’s players. She earns about $1 million per season to play in Russia, about four times the salary Griner earns playing for the WNBA. On January 29, Griner played her latest game with her team UMMC Ekaterinburg before the Russian league took a break for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments.
The Russian Customs Service reported on March 5 that an American women’s basketball player had been detained after cannabis vape cartridges were discovered in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport. The date of the arrest was not given and the name of the player was not included in the report. Russian authorities also released a video that appeared to show the star center with customs officials at an airport security checkpoint.
The Russian state news agency TASS later reported that the arrested player was Griner. Although the date of Griner’s arrest was not announced, media outlets reported that she has been in custody since February 17. Her detention continues in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has been widely condemned by the international community.
On Friday, Griner’s trial on charges of possession of cannabis vape charges began in a courtroom outside Moscow. CNN reported that the “prosecution argues that Griner intended to import the drugs into Russia’s territory and put the prohibited substances into a backpack and a suitcase,” and that cannabis oil “is subject to control in Russia and is classified as a narcotic drug.”
Griner Sends Letter to Biden from Russian Prison
Last week, the WNBA star center sent a letter to Biden pleading for his help securing her release from prison.
“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,” reads an excerpt of the letter obtained by CNN.
“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees,” Griner continued humbly. “Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”
Biden received the letter from Brittney Griner on the morning of July 4. The White House released three excerpts from the letter, noting that the rest of the correspondence would be kept private.
“On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran,” Griner wrote. “It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year.”
Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted in the case. Her trial is scheduled to resume on Friday.