Brittney Griner: Joe Biden vows to ‘get her home’ from Russian penal colony

Joe Biden pledged on Wednesday to secure the return of US basketball star Brittney Griner, who, it emerged earlier in the day, had been transferred last week from a detention center outside Moscow and was on her way to a Russian penal colony.

“I’m telling you I’m determined to get her home and get her home safely,” the US president said on Wednesday afternoon during a press conference at the White House that focused chiefly on the results of the midterm elections.

Griner, the two-time Olympic gold medalist, WNBA and Phoenix Mercury star, 32, was arrested on 17 February, a week before Russia sent troops into Ukraine, at a Moscow airport with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is banned in Russia. The White House had previously condemned her detention as “wrongful”.

She was sentenced on 4 August to nine years in a penal colony on charges of possessing and smuggling drugs.

Biden further told journalists that he has continued to speak with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, in the US. He said he hoped Russia would be more open to a prisoner swap with the US now that the midterm election was over.

In the early hours of Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had issued a statement saying: “Every minute that Brittney Griner must endure wrongful detention in Russia is a minute too long,” and added that the Biden administration “continues to work tirelessly to secure her release”.

Griner had pleaded guilty but said she had made an “honest mistake” and had not meant to break the law. She was visited by US officials earlier this month, after her appeal against her sentence was denied.

Biden’s reference to Griner coming home “safely” evoked 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after being returned to the US in a coma in 2017 following 17 months as a prisoner in North Korea after he was accused of stealing a propaganda poster during a trip and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor by the dictatorship.

Neither Griner’s exact whereabouts nor her final destination were known, the legal team said in a statement, adding that in line with Russian procedures, her attorneys as well as the US embassy should be notified upon her arrival at her destination.

The notification would take up to two weeks to be received.

Jean-Pierre added that Biden has directed his administration to “prevail on her Russian captors to improve her treatment and the conditions she may be forced to endure in a penal colony”. The statement did not give any details about Griner’s whereabouts.

The Biden administration in late July proposed a deal for a prisoner swap with Russia to secure her release, as well as that of former US marine Paul Whelan, but Moscow has yet to respond positively to the offer.

“Despite a lack of good faith negotiation by the Russians, the US government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with the Russians through all available channels,” Jean-Pierre said.

The souring of ties between Russia and the west has complicated the talks to secure Griner’s release.

“Our primary concern continues to be BG’s health and well-being,” Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, said in a separate statement, referring to the player by her initials.

“As we work through this very difficult phase of not knowing exactly where BG is or how she is doing, we ask for the public’s support in continuing to write letters and express their love and care for her,” Colas said.

She said Griner’s team remained in close contact with the US government as well as the Richardson Center, named after former US diplomat and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who has privately worked to secure the release of American detainees abroad.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in an earlier statement, described Griner’s conditions as “intolerable” and the trial she had to go through as “another sham judicial proceeding”.

Whelan was convicted by Russia of spying and jailed for 16 years in 2020. He denies espionage and has said he was set up in a sting operation. Washington has demanded his release.

Biden acknowledged in answer to a press question on Wednesday about “alternative ways forward” that there were discussions with the Russians about factors other than prisoner swaps but said going into any detail publicly “would not be a wise thing to do”. When he said he was determined to get Griner home, he said “along with others, I might add”.