President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke on Wednesday with Cherelle Griner, the wife of the W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner. Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia on drug charges since February, and her trial began Friday.
During the call, Biden read a draft of a letter he planned to send to Brittney Griner.
“The president 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,” according to a statement released by the White House.
The U.S. State Department said in May that Brittney Griner had been “wrongfully detained.” It will work to secure her release regardless of the outcome of the trial.
“I am grateful to the both of them for the time they spent with me and for the commitment they expressed to getting B.G. home,” Cherelle Griner said of Biden and Harris in a statement to The New York Times on Wednesday.
Brittney Griner has been in custody in Russia since Feb. 17, accused by the Russian authorities of having a vape cartridge with hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. On Monday, Brittney Griner sent a handwritten letter to Biden pleading for his help.
“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner said in an excerpt from the letter shared by her representatives. She continued: “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.”
In her statement, Cherelle Griner thanked her wife’s supporters.
“While I will remain concerned and outspoken until she is back home, I am hopeful in knowing that the president read my wife’s letter and took the time to respond,” Cherelle Griner said. “I know B.G. will be able to find comfort in knowing she has not been forgotten.”
Wednesday’s statement from the White House described Brittney Griner as “wrongfully detained in Russia under intolerable circumstances.”
It also said that Biden had instructed his national security team to keep “regular contact” with Griner’s family and that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, had spoken with Cherelle Griner recently.
In the past several weeks, Cherelle Griner had publicly expressed frustration with Biden and his administration’s efforts to secure her wife’s release.
On Tuesday, Cherelle Griner appeared on “CBS Mornings” and spoke about her disappointment that Brittney Griner’s family had not received a reply from the president to Brittney Griner’s letter.
“I will not be quiet anymore,” Cherelle Griner said. “My wife is struggling, and we have to help her.”
The women have been able to communicate with each other only through letters. In June, Cherelle Griner told The Associated Press that a scheduled call with Brittney Griner never got through to her because of a staffing issue at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. She said she had not spoken to her wife since the day she was detained.
Experts said Brittney Griner’s trial was likely to end in a conviction. She faces up to 10 years in a penal colony if she is convicted.
“There’s a bias mainly because the Russian judicial system says they really should not go to trial unless the defendant is going to be convicted,” said William Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on Russian law. “There’s no real idea or expectation that the defendant could be innocent. There’s no presumption of innocence, really.”
One pathway to securing the release of an American detained abroad is a prisoner swap, which experts believe is the most likely scenario for Griner’s release.
A Kremlin spokesman has denied that Brittney Griner’s imprisonment is politically motivated, but Russian media outlets have linked Griner’s case to that of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year federal-prison sentence.
What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia
Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who had been imprisoned in Russia on assault charges since August 2019, was released in a prisoner swap in April. Reed had been sentenced to nine years in prison in July 2020.
In her statement Wednesday, Cherelle Griner asked for prayers for her family and the families of others wrongfully detained.
“Our pain remains active until our loved ones are brought home,” she said. “Let’s continue to use our voices to speak the names of all the wrongfully detained Americans and support the administration as they do what it takes to bring them home today.”
The U.S. State Department has warned Americans against traveling to Russia because of the war in Ukraine, the “potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials” and “the singling out of U.S. citizens in Russia by Russian government security officials including for detention,” among other reasons.
Griner was in Russia because she played for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a team known for being among the highest paying women’s basketball teams in the world. She makes more there than she does playing for the W.N.B.A.
Griner has played for the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury since the franchise drafted her first overall in 2013. She won a W.N.B.A. championship in 2014 and has won two gold medals with the U.S. women’s national basketball team.
After Griner’s detention, those supporting her initially were advised not to draw too much attention to the situation in hopes that her detention would not be politicized. Russia has long had a frosty relationship with the United States, and it invaded Ukraine soon after Griner was detained.
But when the U.S. State Department said in May that Griner had been wrongfully detained, that strategy changed. Cherelle Griner, W.N.B.A. officials and W.N.B.A. players have been speaking out. W.N.B.A. teams are honoring Griner this season with decals of her initials and jersey number, 42, on each of the league’s 12 courts.
In June, while in Washington for a game, members of the Mercury met with State Department officials and members of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. They also met with representatives Greg Stanton, Democrat of Arizona; Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas; and Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, who had introduced a resolution calling for Griner’s release.