American basketball star Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia on drug charges for more than four months, pleaded guilty Thursday, news that comes as she and her family escalate their pleas to the Biden administration to negotiate her release. “There was no intent. I did not want to break the law, ”she told a court near Moscow, according to the BBC. “I was in a rush packing and the cartridges accidentally ended up in my bag,” Griner said.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was detained at an airport near Moscow in February, just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine and as tensions between the US and Russia were mounting; it was not until March, however, that Russian authorities announced her arrest. She’d been playing for a Russian team during the WNBA off-season and was on her way back to the US when, according to the Russian customs service, a drug-sniffing dog prompted a search of her luggage. The customs service said they had found a vape cartridge with hashish oil, a marijuana concentrate that is illegal in the country. The drug smuggling charges leveled against Griner, who was found with less than a gram of cannabis oil, are punishable by up to 10 years in prison. “It is still unclear whether Russia targeted Ms. Griner as leverage against the United States, which has led a widespread effort to impose harsh sanctions on Russia and its elite, ”the New York Times reports.
The Biden administration’s approach to securing Griner’s release shifted on May 3, when the State Department said Griner had been “wrongfully detained” by the Russian Federation, an official classification that moved her case from the consular office to the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, for ESPN. As the State Department changed tune, so, too, did Griner’s supporters and family members, who initially kept a low profile in an effort to avoid politicizing her case. The State Department reclassification “cued our shift to the more public activist elements of our strategy,” Lindsay Kagawa ColasGriner’s agent, told the Times. The coordinated campaign has involved displaying Griner’s initials on WNBA courts and Griner’s wife, Cherelle Grinermaking a public plea to President Joe Biden on Good Morning America. “She’s a political pawn. If they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it. ”
Her detention had been extended multiple times by the time the trial began last week. With the start of the trial — which is expected to end in a conviction — came another phase of the public campaign. On Monday, Griner wrote a handwritten letter to Biden from prison, saying she was “terrified I might be here forever” and asking him not to forget about her. On Tuesday, her wife did another media hit, this time with CBS Mornings, to express her frustration with the White House’s handling of the matter, saying it was “very disheartening” that she hadn’t heard from Biden since the letter was delivered and that she “will not be quiet anymore.” She was initially told by US officials to “stay quiet” because they were going to try to handle this behind [the] scenes ”but, Cherelle Griner said,“ they’re not moving, they’re not doing anything. ” On Wednesday, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Cherelle Griner, telling her the administration would pursue “every avenue to bring Britney home.”
On the call, the president read Cherelle Griner a draft of a letter he intended to send the basketball player. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov referred to that letter on Thursday, the same day Griner pleaded guilty, as he cautioned the US against creating such “hype” around the case. “This type of correspondence does not help,” the Russian diplomat said.
Griner was one of three high-profile Americans detained in Russia at the start of the war in Ukraine. Trevor Reeda former US Marine, whose family also made public pleas to the Biden administration, was released in April in a prisoner swap. Paul Whelan, also a former US Marine, remains detained in Russia; accused of spying, he is currently serving a 16-year sentence. Whelan’s sister said in a tweet she was “crushed” to see the administration meet with Griner’s family and not hers.