Brittney Griner’s Show Trial Begins
(Darryl Webb / AP Photo)
Russia is once again in the ugly business of “hostage diplomacy.”
On July 4, as a raucous parade passes my house with someone singing “Old Time Rock and Roll” on a makeshift float, it’s difficult to not think about what Brittney Griner is enduring while friends and neighbors drink gustily to their own freedom. The WNBA all-star, who has been in a Russian prison since February, gave us a degree of insight into how she was feeling. In a handwritten letter delivered to President Joe Biden delivered on Independence Day, Griner wrote, “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.”
She is on trial in Russia in a court system where 99 percent of all prosecutions lead to conviction and having to reckon with the prospect of 10 years in prison, five of which could be spent at “hard labor,” for the crime of two THC vape cartridges allegedly found in her luggage at a Moscow airport back in February. For the Russian prosecution, this constitutes “drug smuggling.”
It doesn’t take a Brookings Institution political scientist to figure out what has happened. Whether she is guilty or not, and there is plenty of reason for doubt, authorities arrested Griner mere days before Russia invaded Ukraine, sending US-Russia relations into a tailspin. She has become a political prisoner, a bargaining chip for Putin to both taunt the United States and hopefully get a high-valued Russian prisoner in return. Yet Russia overestimated how much the US political and sports establishment would work to free Griner. The sports media has largely turned a blind eye—one could only imagine the ruckus if it were Tom Brady or Steph Curry facing years in a Russian labor camp—and the political establishment has in recent weeks talked a better game but has nothing to show for it. Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBA Players Association, told NPR that she wants to see more from this government than statements from the State Department that they “wake up every day” thinking about Griner’s plight. Jackson wants “President Biden, our elected official, to have a meeting, a sit-down, a face-to-face with Cherelle Griner, BG’s wife. Because you know what? She deserves that.”
She certainly does. While the sports media turns its eyes to the soap operatic meanderings of NBA free agency and the State Department offers words without results, Cherelle Griner is living a nightmare. After, on the advice of the State Department, choosing silence for months regarding her wife’s capture, Cherelle has gone public to raise the heat on Biden and friends to ensure that they prioritize securing Brittney’s freedom. Appearing on Al Sharpton’s Sirius XM program, Cherelle bravely verbalized her pain, and relayed what she had learned through their letters. She was due to speak to Brittney by telephone, but the US Embassy, after weeks of negotiation, forgot to staff their phone to make the connection on their third wedding anniversary. Cherelle is also going through all this while preparing to take the bar exam.
Cherelle has described a Brittney Griner who is almost constantly cramped, trying to fold her six-foot-nine frame into a cell and onto a bed made for prisoners a fraction of her size. She told Sharpton that Brittney is “struggling” but also attempting to be strong in order to at least try and manage the weight on Cherelle’s shoulders. She said, “Because I’m her person, she will always try and write persuasively to make sure I don’t break, because she knows I’m studying for my bar, and she knows I have all these things going on, and she’s trying to always be my strong person.”
In one letter to Cherelle, Britney wrote that she is “hardened” and not “on her knee,” adding, “But I’m holding on and I won’t break until I come home.”
The Kremlin denies that Griner is a political prisoner, but this is a “don’t spit in my face an[d tell me it’s raining” kind of response. In advance of the invasion, Russia identified, targeted, and arrested Griner. This in polite circles is known as “hostage diplomacy,” and it’s not the first time Russia has engaged in this practice. The State Department at least recognizes this and issued a Level 4 travel advisory saying, “Russian security services have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, singled out U.S. citizens in Russia…denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence.”
It is understandable, as we are living in a country with its own advancing authoritarianism, why Brittney Griner might not be at the top of anyone’s concerns. But as long as she remains in jail, and as long as our own sports world fails to love her nearly enough, we need to make the space to demand her freedom. In recent weeks, we have seen rallies aimed at raising her name, and the basketball world, at least, has done more than in the early months of her capture. But we need more. We need an international outcry. In her letter to Biden, Griner wrote, “I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”
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