Brittney Griner Freed Following Russian Prisoner Exchange

While playing in the WNBA offseason for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, Moscow Customs officers arrested All-Star Brittney Griner for possession of marijuana-containing vape cartridges in her luggage on Feb. 17, 2022 in the Moscow International Airport. On March 6, the Russian government released an official statement that they had an American basketball player in custody after a bystander leaked a video of Griner’s interaction with Customs. Due to Griner’s lack of communication with the U.S. and the footage, the U.S. government quickly concluded that Griner was in Russian custody.

Her future should not be defined by this one action.

— Viv Chaudhry

Griner was held in a detention center in Moscow while she awaited her trial date set for late August, with the drug possession charge against her having the potential to result in five to 10 years in Russian prison. The outlook was grim, and even plea deals had Griner in prison for some amount of time. 

On July 4, Griner’s family gave President Joe Biden a letter they had received from her. “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. I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home,” Griner wrote.

The following day, Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, appeared on CBS Mornings to echo her wife’s words. Cherelle Griner shared that she would no longer stay quiet, saying, “We’re over 140 days at this point — [staying silent] does not work. They are not moving, they are not doing anything, and so my wife is struggling, and we have to help her.” 

Despite Brittney Griner’s letter and her wife’s plea on national television, no major movement was made by the U.S. government for her release. A few proposals for prisoner swaps were made to the Russian government, but all deals made little progress before being shut down. Amidst a hostile global political sphere, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the U.S. midterm elections, Brittney Griner’s release seemed to sit on the backburner for both the U.S. and Russia. 

As was predicted by most news sources, including CBS and The New York Times, the Russian courts found Brittney Griner guilty on all charges and sentenced her to 9 1/2 years in prison. In her final plea to the judge, Brittney Griner said, “I made an honest mistake. I hope that it’s reflected in your ruling so that it doesn’t end my life here.”

Brittney Griner appealed on Oct. 25, but her sentence was swiftly upheld, and she spent weeks in a Russian penal colony.

When asked about her thoughts on the Brittney Griner situation, sophomore Annica Nassiry said, “The situation is ultimately valid on both sides of the argument. Yes, she possessed an illegal drug — however, her sentence is more than outrageous.” 

Under pressure from social media and the midterm elections, the Biden administration began pushing for a prisoner exchange to free Brittney Griner. Following months of negotiations, Brittney Griner was traded for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who was sentenced to 25 years in prison on terrorism charges, on Dec. 8.  

Junior Viv Chaudhry supported Brittney Griner’s release.

“In my opinion, it’s absurd that someone who has clearly worked incredibly hard to earn the success she has can have her entire life derailed in an instant for an incident only worth a misdemeanor in most places,” Chaudhry said. “Her future should not be defined by this one action,” she added.