Biden speaks with wife of basketball star detained in Russia

The US President said he is working to secure Brittney Griner’s release as she is ‘wrongfully detained’ in Russia.

United States President Joe Biden spoke with the wife of basketball star Brittney Griner, who is being detained in Russia, the White House has said, and assured her that he is working to win Griner’s freedom as soon as possible.

During Biden’s conversation with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, on Wednesday, he offered his support to the family and committed to making sure they receive “all possible assistance” while the administration pursues steps to win her release, according to a White House statement.

“The President called Cherelle to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world,” according to the statement. “He also read her a draft of the letter the President is sending to Brittney Griner today.”

The development came as Griner, a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) all-star and two-time Olympic gold medallist, has been detained for four months and is currently on trial in Russia, accused of possessing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.

Her trial began last week after she was arrested on February 17 while returning to play for her Russian team. Her next hearing is set for Thursday. If convicted on drug charges, she could face up to 10 years in prison.

The development also follows Griner’s personal appeal to the president in a handwritten letter the White House received on Monday. In the letter, Griner acknowledged her fears that she would spend forever in detention in Russia and asked Biden not “forget about me and the other American Detainees”.

Brittney Griner sent a handwritten letter to US President Joe Biden saying she fears that she would spend forever in detention in Russia and asked Biden to bring her home [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

Biden was joined on the call by Vice President Kamala Harris. He directed his national security team to remain in regular contact with Griner’s family and with the families of other Americans detained abroad, the White House said adding that Griner was being held under “intolerable circumstances”.

Griner’s case has drawn heightened attention amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. Western powers have imposed sanctions on Moscow in response to its invasion of Ukraine, and Russian-US relations have hit their worst point since the Cold War.

At her first hearing on Friday, Griner was told she had been charged with intentionally importing narcotics. Russia’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that Griner may appeal her sentence or apply for clemency once a verdict is delivered.

The “court must first deliver its verdict, but no one is stopping Brittney Griner from making use of the appeal procedure,” Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Alexei Zaitsev said in a briefing.

“Attempts to present the case as though the American woman was illegally detained do not stand up to criticism,” Zaitsev added.

Fewer than 1 percent of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in US courts, acquittals can be overturned.

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