WNBA star Britney Greiner, 31, has been held in Russia since February after officials found drugs in her luggage by officials at a Moscow airport.
Her arrest occurred shortly before Russia launched its war in Ukraine, with geopolitical tensions undoubtedly making it difficult to release her.
Ms. Greiner’s family, friends and fans – along with many public figures – have been calling for Russia to release her for months, as has the US State Department to intervene.
Her trial began on Friday (July 1), days after the court ordered an extension of her detention until December.
Here’s everything we know about the ordeal:
Who is Britney Greiner?
Ms. Greiner plays on the Phoenix Mercury WNBA team as a center. She also previously competed with the US Olympic basketball team in 2016. She competed in the US Olympics again in 2020, winning her second gold medal.
An accomplished basketball player, she was named ESPYs Female Athlete of the Year and landed an endorsement deal with Nike in 2013.
On February 17, Ms Greiner was traveling through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport when Russian customs officials allegedly found cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Ms. Greiner was detained at the airport. Tom Firestone, a lawyer who specializes in international criminal cases and compliance with ESPN, said Ms Greiner has been charged with illegally crossing customs borders using illegal drugs.
He said the charges against her could carry up to 10 years in prison. If she is found to be carrying more than 2.5 grams of illegal drugs, she could face up to 20 years in prison.
On June 27, Russian courts extended Ms. Greiner’s detention until December 20. She appeared in court to begin her trial on Friday (1 July).
Why was she in Russia?
Ms. Greiner was in Russia to play basketball in the Russian Premier League.
Many American athletes travel abroad during the off-season in the United States to continue competing in their chosen sport. Off-season foreign leagues provide American athletes with additional opportunities to earn money and the opportunity to maintain their skills through constant competition. WNBA stars like Mrs. Greiner make, in the middleonly 1.5 percent of the salary NBA players make in one year, so playing outside the United States often helps offset that pay disparity.
Ms. Greiner earns $1 million for every season she plays in Russia. Her base salary at Phoenix Mercury is $221,450.
What is being done to help her?
Ms. Greiner’s supporters, along with her family and friends, were calling for the woman’s release.
Democratic Representative John Garamendi said CNN Securing her release would be “extremely difficult” due to ongoing political tensions between Russia and the United States.
There are some US officials who have assumed that Russia is using Ms. Greiner’s arrest as a political bargaining chip. Pentagon official Evelyn Farkas said she feared Russia would use Greiner as a “high-level hostage” that Russia could use to secure a prisoner exchange with the United States.
On March 23, a diplomatic official was allowed to visit Ms Greiner in Russia, and said she was in “good shape”. Russian observers also checked into Ms Greiner and stated that she was fine except that the bed in the facility where she was being held was not designed for a person of her height.
More than 40 organizations, including the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign, the GLAAD, the National Urban League and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, have sent Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris a signed letter calling for Biden to make a deal with Russia. to secure her release.
A prisoner exchange was reportedly considered on May 15, with Ms Greiner being returned to the United States in exchange for arms dealer Victor Bout. Mr. Bot was convicted in 2011 of conspiring to murder US citizens and officials, delivering anti-aircraft missiles, and providing assistance to a terrorist organization. He is currently detained at the United States Correctional Facility.
The US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, said he spoke with Greiner’s wife, Sheryl Greiner, and said his top priority was to secure the release of Americans imprisoned in Russia.
“I have no higher priority than making sure Americans who are being held unlawfully in one way or another around the world go home,” he said. “That includes Paul Whelan, including Britney Greiner, which includes people in a number of other countries.”
Sheryl Greiner spoke with Reverend Al Sharpton about his wife’s detention in Russia, and described the WNBA star as “struggling.”
“She’s terrifying in there, she’s just out there,” Cheryl Greiner said.
She told Mr. Sharpton that she believed her wife was hiding some of her fears for her own protection.
“Because I’m her character, she’ll always try to write convincingly to make sure I don’t quit because she knows I’m studying at my pub and she knows all these things happen and she always tries to be my strength,” she said.
Ms Greiner reportedly told Cheryl: “I’m holding on and won’t break until I get home.”
The US embassy in Moscow was due to send a diplomat to Ms. Greiner’s hearing on Friday (June 1), according to officials who spoke to CNN.
The State Department’s official position is that Ms. Greiner is “unjustly detained” and that she will continue to work to secure her release.
The United States Government will continue to provide appropriate support to Ms. Greiner and her family. “We will continue to press for her release,” a ministry spokesman said.
Cheryl said the State Department told her “a lot of compelling things,” but indicated that she only trusts what she sees.
“This leads me to believe that this matter is sitting right in front of us [President Joe] Biden said. “No one seems to have reached a point where they can tell me anything, so I can only make out what I see and what I see is that my wife is not here.”