Brittney Griner’s wife Cherelle wants President Joe Biden to secure her partner’s release, doing whatever it takes to bring the WNBA star back from Russia where she has been held for more than three months.
“I keep hearing that, you know, he has the power. He’s a political pawn,” said Cherelle, who became emotional as she detailed what little she knows of Griner’s detention during an interview that aired Wednesday on Good Morning America. “So if they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it.”
The Phoenix Mercury Center has been detained since February 17 after vape cartridges containing cannabis-derived oil were allegedly found in its luggage at an airport near Moscow.
Griner, 31, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for the United States, faces drug trafficking charges which carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Earlier this month, the Biden administration said Griner was wrongfully detained.
Cherelle spoke with Secretary of State Antony Blinken about Griner’s case, but not the president.
“I was grateful for the call, you say she’s top priority, but I want to see it and I’m keen to see that it would be me seeing BG on American soil,” Cherelle said in her first public interview.”At this point, I don’t even know who I get when she comes back.”
Russian officials have described Griner’s case as a criminal offense without making any political associations. But Moscow’s war in Ukraine has taken US-Russian relations to the lowest level since the Cold War.
Despite the tension, Russia and the US carried out an unexpected prisoner swap last month – swapping former Marine Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States.
Although the United States does not generally accept such exchanges, it reached the agreement in part because Yaroshenko had already served a long part of his sentence.
The Russians may see Griner as someone who could feature in another such exchange.
Besides Griner, another American considered wrongfully detained in Russia is Paul Whelan, a corporate security official from Michigan. Whelan was arrested in December 2018 while visiting a friend’s wedding and later sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage-related charges his family said were bogus.
“Even though they’re separate people, separate roles, no connection other than what they’re going through in Russia, you know, obviously I want him back too,” Cherelle said. “You don’t want anyone there, going through what they’re going through.”
Cherelle, who graduated from North Carolina Central University Law School earlier this month, has not spoken on the phone with Griner since the day she was first detained.
“I actually got the news from Brittney. She started texting me around 2 a.m. that morning,” Cherelle said. Babe. Babe. Wake up. They have me in this room. I don’t know what’s going on. and so I instantly respond “Who are they and in which room?”
Cherelle said Griner responded by texting, “Customs officers. They just grabbed me when I was passing, and they got me in this room. Griner then sent a message saying, “They’re about to take my phone.”
Cherelle said she told Griner to call her when she could. She is still waiting for that call almost 100 days later.
“The first week I lay on that couch and cried my head off. I was numb. I couldn’t move,” Cherelle said. “And then I said, ‘You have to get up now.'”
Cherelle and Brittney communicate through letters and through her lawyers. The lawyers print articles to show Griner so she can keep up to date with what’s going on.
Initially, Griner’s friends and teammates were reluctant to speak out about his situation for fear of interfering with ongoing negotiations for his release. However, they began to speak cautiously ahead of the Women’s Final Four in early April as her detention gained more national attention.
Cherelle got emotional talking about the support and how it helps Griner stay strong during the fight for her release. The WNBA acknowledged 6-foot-9 center Mercury’s absence by placing a sticker with his initials and number on the floor of all 12 teams.
“It comforts BG,” Cherelle said. “It lets her know she’s not forgotten and…when you’re sitting there, your country…they haven’t come yet…to your rescue. I know it hurts her. well, because she doesn’t want to be forgotten.
“Things like that matter, like, it gives her hope,” Cherelle added. “It lets her know she’s not forgotten. Those little moments, I know, give her a kind of hope.
Cherelle said that prior to the detention, Griner’s experience in Russia over the past nine years had been great. She was returning to the country after the Russian league paused for the FIBA World Cup Qualifying Tournament when she was detained.
“You know you’re a GOAT if you can actually play in Russia…on the team that BG plays for,” Cherelle said. “They treat them like superstars.”
Griner, who won an NCAA championship at Baylor, earns over $1 million playing for UMMC Yekaterinburg to supplement her WNBA earnings where she earns the maximum base salary of $228,000. Elite players like Griner can earn up to $500,000 with their salaries, bonuses and WNBA marketing deals.
“BG would wholeheartedly love not to go overseas,” Cherelle said. “She’s only had one Thanksgiving in the United States in the nine years she’s been a pro.”
The WNBA and US officials worked on his release, with no visible progress. A US consular officer was able to meet with Griner last week.
“We have noted that a consular official from our embassy in Moscow was able to visit Brittney Griner on the sidelines of her hearing in Moscow that day,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday. “We have argued that ad hoc consular visits are, in our view, not sufficient.
“But it’s not just in our opinion, it’s in the requirements that are put forward by the Vienna Convention and other bilateral agreements that say we should have regular and sustained access to Americans who are detained. around the world, including those in pretrial detention.”
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
To see more stories about Griner: https://apnews.com/hub/brittney-griner