Brittney Griner Says Russia Didn’t Tell Her Why She Was Arrested for 2 Days

WNBA player Brittney Griner testified that Russian officials didn’t properly translate her charges and that she was coerced into signing documents.
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner sits in a cage at a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 27, 2022.
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner sits in a cage at a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

After Brittney Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport, the all-star WNBA player says Russian officials held her for days without properly communicating why—or what was about to happen to her.

During her testimony in a Russian courtroom Wednesday, Griner recounted the moment on Feb. 17 she was pulled aside by Russian customs at Sheremetyevo airport for having less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner said that after the 13-hour journey from her home state of Arizona, where weed is legal, she was confronted by Russia officials, not realizing that she had the vape cartridges in her bag.

It was two days—at her first court hearing on Feb. 19—before she fully understood what she was being held for, according to the Associated Press. 

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Griner says the interpreter provided to her gave incomplete translations of what was happening after she was taken away from airport security. She also says no one bothered to explain what her rights in Russia were, nor what her access to legal counsel would look like in the coming weeks. Griner also said she was coerced to sign certain legal documents, even though she had no context as to what it meant for her freedom. That day, she was told she could give her packed belongings to an attorney, before she was handcuffed and taken away.

“I remember one time there was a stack of papers that [the translator] needed to translate for me,” Griner testified Wednesday, according to the Washington Post. “He took a brief look and then said—the exact words were—‘Basically, you are guilty.’”

Griner’s testimony Wednesday was the first time the public got a firsthand account of what happened since the last time she was a free woman. She testified from a cage in the courtroom, which is standard for Russian criminal trials.

Earlier this month, Griner pleaded guilty to the drug possession and smuggling charges against her and explained that she packed the drugs in error as she rushed through preparing for the trip overseas. But in Russia, a guilty plea doesn’t end a criminal trial the same way it does in the U.S. She now faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

During another court appearance this month, Griner’s attorney showed Russian court that a doctor in Arizona had given the celebrated center for the Pheonix Mercury a prescription for the drug to treat pain, all in hopes of strengthening her case that she never intended to break Russia’s strict drug laws.

Griner’s arrest happened just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, a military operation opposed by several world powers, including the U.S. Experts widely believe her arrest was a strategic move to gain leverage over the U.S. as Russia moved forward with its invasion. Griner, like many female athletes, was in Russia to play basketball for nearly four times her U.S. salary.

The circumstances of her arrest, which wasn’t made public until mid-March, have stirred a groundswell of support from fellow athletes, celebrities, and family who want to see the U.S. government negotiate for her freedom. Earlier this month, Griner advocated for her own release in a letter to President Joe Biden, where she asked him not to “forget about her.”

Though the U.S. has not confirmed it, Russian state media has hinted that both countries are in early talks to get Griner back home by exchanging prisoners. Griner could be exchanged for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who’s currently 11 years into a 25-year prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who planned to kill Americans.

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