In the more than four months that Brittney Griner has languished in a Russian prison, supporters of the basketball star have amped up demands that the Biden administration apply pressure on Vladimir Putin to release her.
The campaign to win her freedom has intensified, with the “We are BG” website drawing more than 269,000 signatures to a change.org petition urging President Biden “to take action today — doing whatever is necessary” to bring her home.
Supporters say that since the Biden administration declared Griner “wrongfully detained” last month, they could make a deal with the Russians, similar to the prisoner exchange that freed US Marine Trevor Reed in April. Reed had been detained in Russia since 2020, but was exchanged with Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was convicted on drug smuggling charges.
Last month, Russian media reported that Putin’s government might consider exchanging Griner for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison after his 2011 conviction in New York federal court of conspiring to sell weapons to a Colombian terrorist group.
Former UN Ambassador Bill Richardson, who worked to help release Reed, is also working on Griner’s case, according to reports.
“I’m convinced the Russians are gonna ask for something in return, because Brittney Griner is very high profile,” Richardson said last month. “There’s a lot of attention to her. She’s a world figure. And the Russians are gonna want something in return.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, last week blasted the Biden administration after officials at the US Embassy in Moscow failed to put through a call from Brittney Griner on the couple’s fourth wedding anniversary. The call was supposed to have been patched through the embassy, and Griner attempted to call her wife 11 times, according to reports.
“I was distraught. I was hurt. I was done, fed up,” Cherelle Griner told The Associated Press, of how she felt on the anniversary. “I’m pretty sure I texted BG’s agent and was like: ‘I don’t want to talk to anybody. It’s going to take me a minute to get my emotions together, and just tell everybody I’m unavailable right now.’ Because it just knocked me out. I wasn’t well, I’m still not well.”
The State Department said it regretted the “logistical error.”
On Wednesday, more than 40 organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, and the NAACP, sent a letter to President Biden urging him “to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely.”
The signatories noted that Griner “continues to endure inhumane treatment, deprived of contact with her family” and that she is “essentially a political pawn.”
Dawn Staley, an Olympic gold medalist and basketball coach for the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, tweets daily to her 144,900 followers, urging authorities to “#freebrittneygriner.” Staley coached Griner, who helped the US women’s basketball team to a gold medal win at the 2020 Olympics.
Lawmakers from Griner’s home state of Texas, including Democratic Rep. Colin Allred, have also been campaigning for her release alongside sports stars. Allred and other lawmakers introduced a resolution calling for Griner’s release last month. Last week, members of the Phoenix Mercury met with State Department officials.
Although pressure is mounting to free Griner, Cherelle Griner said she doesn’t believe that the Biden administration has begun negotiating with the Russian government for her return.
“To my understanding, they have not started negotiating her release, and so this letter is very powerful because it’s much-needed support to highlight the fact that we are at the phase where you guys should be making a deal,” Cherelle Griner said.
“I wish I could say I have a clear understanding of it,” she said of the White House strategy. “They do a lot of talking in code with me.”