Brittney Griner Could Face Up to 10 Years In Prison, As Russian Trial Begins

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PHOENIX, ARIZONA - OCTOBER 10: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury durring pregame warmups at Footprint Center on October 10, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Mattina/Getty Images)
PHOENIX, ARIZONA - OCTOBER 10: Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury durring pregame warmups at Footprint Center on October 10, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Mattina/Getty Images)

Brittney Griner, an American basketball player for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, has been stuck in Russia since February awaiting trial. She was first detained at a Moscow-area airport after Russian officials claimed they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil (or hash oil, containing cannabis, which is illegal in Russia) in her luggage. Her detention was extended repeatedly pending her criminal trial, which finally began July 1.

Griner has yet to declare her innocence or guilt, but she could face up to 10 years in prison if she's convicted of drug smuggling charges, according to NPR. Russian media have reported that a Russian prosecutor accused Griner of transporting a "significant amount" of cannabis oil during her first court appearance, as reported by The Washington Post.

The charges allege that, before traveling to Russia in February, Griner "bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil," as reported by Russian state news agency TASS. Her next hearing is scheduled for July 7, and a Russian judge has ordered Griner to be detained for the length of her trial, according to NPR. Griner's lawyer, Alexander Boikov, said that she's "a bit worried" about the possibility of facing prison time.

In May, the US government classified this as a wrongful detainment, which means that "the U.S. government has determined she is being used as a political pawn and as a result, is engaging in negotiations for her release, regardless of the legal process," Griner's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, told the New York Times. (The Russian government, however, continues to deny that the case is politically motivated.) ESPN also noted that this classification meant that the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens is now leading the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner's release. Carstens was a key diplomat in ensuring the release of formerly detained US citizen Trevor Reed from Russia, per an April 28 CNN report.

Even so, Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner's wife, told The Associated Press that she has "zero trust" in the US government in light of the way her wife's detention has been handled thus far. Since being detained, officials have been able to check on Griner. During a March 23 CNN broadcast, US State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed that a US embassy official "has been granted consular access" to Griner. "Our official found Brittney Griner to be in good condition, and we will continue to do everything we can to see to it that she is treated fairly throughout this ordeal," Price said.

In a June 29 interview with Rev. Al Sharpton, however, Cherelle said her wife "is struggling." She also added, "She's there terrified, she's there alone." The two have been able to communicate via letters, with Brittney telling Cherelle, "I'm gonna do my best to hold on until I can get home . . . I hope that that's quick, cause I'm not OK."

So what was Griner doing in Russia in the first place? Here's everything we know about the situation, how Griner ended up in Russia, and when she's expected to be released.

Why Was Brittney Griner in Russia?

Griner flew to Russia to play on the UMMC Ekaterinburg team. The 31-year-old has been a member of the Russian basketball team for several WNBA off-seasons. But this particular trip came at a tense time; Griner was detained shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine. The US State Department had issued a "Do Not Travel" advisory weeks earlier, citing the ongoing tension.

The two-time Olympian might have chosen to play overseas during this offseason for many different reasons - including to earn some extra cash. WNBA players typically earn between $60,000 and $229,000, while NBA players can earn upwards of $40 million. According to an Associated Press report, "half of the WNBA's 144 players" went overseas during the 2022 offseason, with high-ranking athletes earning more than $1 million. WNBA athlete Liz Cambage said on NBA Today that she is able to earn "five to eight times more" by playing overseas.

Related: We Can't Ignore the Equal-Pay Problem in Women's Sports Any Longer

When Will Brittney Griner Be Released?

Griner's detention has been extended several times since she was first detained in Russia. As of June 27, Russian courts have ruled that her detention be extended for six months pending the trial.

Griner's detention comes amid US sanctions against Russia following their invasion of Ukraine. Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro deemed Russia's decision to detain the athlete to be a political move, tweeting, "I'm closely monitoring reports of Texan @brittneygriner's detention in Russia. This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning US citizens . . . US citizens are not political pawns."

Moscow "will not consider including Griner in a detainee swap 'until a court investigation into her case is completed,'" per a TASS report cited by NPR. Griner is reportedly sharing a cell with two inmates who "had no previous convictions and are charged with drug-related articles," according to a March statement from Ekaterina Kalugina, a member of Public Monitoring Commission, per NBC.

Griner's wrongful detention and the repeated extensions have sparked outrage amongst her family, fellow players, fans, human rights organizations, and more. The #FreeBrittneyGriner movement has emerged on social media. And on June 22, several groups, including the National Organization for Women, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Urban League, and the National Action Network, banned together to send a letter to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, per the New York Times. The letter urged the administration "to make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely."

What Is Hash Oil?

Hash oil is extracted from cannabis, an illegal substance in Russia. Under Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code, someone who commits an offense related to the "illegal acquisition, storage, transportation, making or processing of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances or analogues thereof" could face up to 10 years in prison.

- Additional reporting by Alexis Jones and Lauren Mazzo

Related: Ukrainian Aid Organizations to Support Following Russian Invasion