Brittney Yevette Griner, a WNBA superstar, is renowned for her impressive basketball career, including two Olympic gold medals, six All-Star appearances, and a championship with the Phoenix Mercury. For the past seven years, she’s also made her mark in the Russian women’s basketball league, playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg.
However, her life took an unexpected turn in February 2022 when she was sent behind the bars in Russia on drug-related charges. Let’s delve into a timeline of her ordeal and what the future holds for this resilient athlete.
February 17, 2022: Arrested at the Airport
The story of Brittney Griner took a sharp detour when she arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport to join her Russian team during the off-season. Customs officials found four vape cartridges containing hash oil, a concentrated form of cannabis that’s illegal in Russia, in her luggage. Subsequently, she was taken into custody and charged with violating Article 229.1 of the Criminal Code of Russia, which criminalizes drug trafficking and smuggling¹.
March 17, 2022: Detention Extended
Griner’s pre-trial detention was prolonged for more than two months, until May 19, following a court petition to investigate the charges. This extension occurred during a tense period in U.S.-Russian relations, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggering new sanctions and condemnation from the U.S. and its allies.
March 23, 2022: First Meeting with U.S. Officials
After more than a month of being held without access to consular services, Brittney Griner finally met with a U.S. official who verified that she was doing as well as could be expected under the circumstances. The U.S. State Department remained actively engaged in the case, insisting on consular access for all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia.
July 1, 2022: Pleaded Guilty
In a Moscow courtroom, Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to the charges against her, with hopes of receiving a lenient sentence and returning home. She expressed remorse for her mistake, stating that she had been unaware that the vape cartridges contained hash oil. Griner reaffirmed her love for basketball and her desire to play again.
August 4, 2022: Sentenced to Nine Years in Prison
In a shocking verdict, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison by the Moscow court, despite her plea for mercy and her insistence on her innocence. The sentence was widely criticized as harsh and disproportionate by human rights organizations, sports bodies, and U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, who called it “unacceptable” and demanded her immediate release².
December 8, 2022: Released in a Prisoner Exchange
After months of diplomatic efforts and negotiations, Griner was finally released from prison in a prisoner exchange deal with Russia. Consequently, the U.S. agreed to exchange her for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in a U.S. prison for conspiring to kill Americans and selling weapons to terrorists. As a result, Griner was flown back to the U.S. on a private jet, accompanied by U.S. officials. Finally, she was reunited with her family and friends.
April 27, 2023: Addressing the Media
After her release, Griner spoke to the media, thanking her supporters. She shared the harsh conditions in her Russian detention, citing physical and psychological abuse, solitary confinement, and poor medical care. Her experience led to struggles with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Griner also stressed her stance against incarcerating individuals for cannabis-related offenses and advocated for global drug policy reform.
What’s Next for Brittney Griner?
Brittney Yevette Griner’s focus has shifted to recovering from her traumatic experience and resuming her basketball career. However, she remains passionate about the game and aspires to return to the court with the Phoenix Mercury. Also hopes to potentially represent the U.S. at the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Beyond her sporting ambitions, she is committed to using her platform to advocate for human rights, social justice, and drug policy reform. Griner cherishes her newfound freedom and has expressed a deep appreciation for being able to play basketball once more.
“I’m just happy to be home,” she stated. “I’m happy to be able to play basketball again.” This chapter in her life has undoubtedly left an indelible mark. Shaping her into an advocate for change and a symbol of resilience for athletes around the world.