On Thursday, July 7, Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to the drug charges she faces in Russia, where she faces up to 10 years in prison for bringing cartridges containing hash oil into the country.
She admitted to the charges, but told the judge that “there was no intent,” her lawyer said Thursday, noting the Phoenix Mercury and WNBA star had been packing in a hurry before traveling to compete in Russia.
Griner has now spent 140 days detained in a hellish Russian jail, virtually without contact with the outside world, as she fights her legal case. Over the holiday weekend, she pleaded with President Joe Biden for help and admitted she was scared.
For Phoenix Mercury teammates, fans, and anyone else who yearns for her safe and sound return, enough was enough, after that.
On Wednesday night, as pressure mounted on the government to take action on Griner’s case, hundreds of emotional fans gathered at the Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix for a rally hosted by the WBNA team: “Bring BG Home.”
Over the course of the event – between several dance numbers and a spoken word act – Griner’s teammates, Phoenix Suns player Torrey Craig, and Griner’s wife, Cherelle, offered impassioned pleas to the Biden administration: Bring Griner home, whatever it takes.
“I can not rest as her safety is in question. I can not rest until she’s home,” Cherelle Griner told the crowd. The last few months had been “gut-wrenching,” she said. She had not been able to speak with her wife, aside from the letters they exchanged.
“How I feel today is deeper than hurt,” Cherelle Griner said. “I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated that my wife is not going to get justice.”
What was already a difficult task just got harder.
Griner’s trial started on July 1, after she was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow on February 17. Russian courts have extended her detention four times and ordered Griner to remain in custody for the duration of her criminal trial.
On July 4, Griner penned a letter to President Biden.
“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” she wrote in an excerpt shared with the media.
Efforts toward Griner’s release have been moving slowly. The US Embassy has been repeatedly denied access to Griner by Russian officials.
Griner’s detainment came just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, applying pressure to already tense relations between Russia and the US In May, the State Department determined Griner was wrongfully detained and referred the matter to the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged “every possible assistance” to Americans detained in Russia during a March 6 joint press conference with Moldovan President Maia Sandu in Chisinau, Moldova.
The State Department later issued a “do not travel to Russia” advisory, stating, “There is the potential throughout Russia of harassment of foreigners, including through regulations targeted specifically against foreigners,” according to its website.
Specifics of any negotiations have not been made public. Some speculate the State Department could use a prisoner swap to free Griner.
In April, Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine held in Russia for more than two years on assault charges, was released in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot sentenced to 20 years in U.S. prison for drug trafficking.
Some lawmakers and Griner’s wife said Brittney is being used as a “political pawn.” US Representative Colin Allred of Texas said in an interview with CNN that Brittney is “being held for largely political purposes.”
Allred joined Arizona Congressman Greg Stanton and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas in introducing the resolution calling for the immediate release of Griner.
Griner also has received a swell of support from fans. A petition calling for her safe return has surpassed 300,000 signatures.
On Wednesday night, the support from her fans was palpable.
The rally emphasized Griner’s work in the community. She had frequently gone out into the streets with the Phoenix Rescue Mission, speaking with homeless people and giving out food. One of Griner’s teammates, Brianna Turner, spoke to Griner’s character as she took the stage: “To know BG is to know such a kind spirit, a nice person, such a giver – I can go on and on,” Turner said.
Stanton, who introduced the resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives demanding Griner’s immediate release, which passed, also appeared. “It’s important that President Biden and the state department know that they have the full support of the American people to do whatever it takes to bring Brittney Griner home,” Stanton told the crowd.
One fan who showed up on Wednesday was Nicole Ortiz, who said she grew up watching Phoenix Mercury games. “It’s so sad,” Ortiz said. “She’s part of the community.” Ortiz said she felt compelled to show up and support Griner.
Like many of the fans in the crowd, she carried a sign that read: “We Are BG.”
Kiera Riley contributed to this report.