WASHINGTON (AP) - President Joe Biden spoke Wednesday with the wife of detained WNBA player Brittney Griner, who is on trial in Russia, and assured her that he is working to win Griner's freedom as soon as possible, the White House said.
Biden's conversation with Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, followed Brittney Griner's personal appeal to the president in a handwritten letter from the basketball player 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."
The Phoenix Mercury star has been detained for four months and is currently on trial in Russia, accused of possessing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.
"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," the White House said in a statement. "He also read her a draft of the letter the President is sending to Brittney Griner today."
Biden offered his support to the family and committed to making sure they receive "all possible assistance" while the administration pursues steps to win Brittney Griner's release, the White House said.
The basketball player is in the midst of a trial in Russia that began last week after she was arrested on Feb. 17 on charges of possessing cannabis oil while returning to play for her Russian team. The trial is scheduled to resume Thursday.
Fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in U.S. courts, acquittals can be overturned.
Cherelle Griner said in an interview Tuesday that it was "disheartening" to her that she had yet to hear from Biden during Brittney Griner's detention.
Griner’s representatives Monday shared a few excerpts from her letter to the president.
″…As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever," Griner wrote.
"On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran," the Phoenix Mercury center added. "It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year."
Griner pleaded with Biden in the letter to use his powers to ensure her return.
"Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore," Griner said "I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home."
She has been able to have sporadic communications with family, friends and WNBA players through an email account her agent set up. The emails are printed out and delivered in bunches to Griner by her lawyer after they are vetted by Russian officials.
Once the lawyers get back to their office, they’ll scan any responses from Griner and pass them back to the U.S. to send along.
She was supposed to have a phone call with her wife on their anniversary but it failed because of an "unfortunate mistake," Biden administration officials.
Griner’s supporters have encouraged a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought home Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy. The State Department in May designated her as wrongfully detained, moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.
Griner isn’t the only American being wrongfully detained in Russia. Paul Whelan, a former Marine and security director is serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction.
Rally held for WNBA star
On July 6, fans once again gathered in Downtown Phoenix for a rally. Phoenix Mercury officials organized the rally to demand action on the issue of Griner's ongoing detention.
"It's definitely tough. She is such a pillar of this organization. Obviously her stature, and just the type of person she is. Obviously it's been really tough, but I try to play in honor of her," said Griner's teammate, Brianna Turner.
Griner's wife, Cherelle, was also at the rally.
"I’m frustrated that 140 days have passed since my wife has been able to speak to me, to my family, and to her friends," said Cherelle. "I’m frustrated that my wife isn’t going to get justice."
Also at the rally was Arizona Congressman Greg Stanton. Stanton once served as Phoenix's mayor.
"We must speak with one unified voice to send a clear message securing Brittney's release, and that of every other wrongfully detained American must continue to be the highest priority, and that is the message you are sending by showing up here tonight," said Rep. Stanton.
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Brittney Griner’s appeal to President Joe Biden in a handwritten letter continued to garner reaction Tuesday after the WNBA All-Star acknowledged she feared never returning home and asked Biden not “ forget about me and the other American Detainees.”