WNBA All-Star suffers misfortune as Russia’s scapegoat for power


Hailey Akau

Illustration by Hailey Akau

By Mariyam Quaisar, Managing Editor

An eight-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist has been in Russian custody since Feb. 17, and was sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison in August—all because she entered Russia with less than one gram of hash oil.

Along with her position on the Phoenix Mercury, Brittney Griner has been playing for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2014—hence her trip abroad in the offseason. 

Griner was detained at the Sheremetyevo International Airport when customs officials found two vape cartridges with marijuana-concentrate hashish oil—of 0.252 and 0.45 grams—for personal use in her luggage. In Russia, cannabis is illegal—individuals can be fined or jailed for up to 15 days for possessing less than six grams of cannabis or two grams of hash. 

Possessing any more is a serious criminal offense, so why is Griner being sentenced to nine years—ridiculously close to the maximum of 10 years—if she had barely one-tenth of the illegal amount?  

Griner’s detainment occurred shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, with geopolitical tensions making it undoubtedly more difficult to secure her safe release. While the US government and United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson continue to negotiate terms for Griner’s release, the Russian officials seem to be disinterested in cooperating at this moment. Why? Their heinous desire for power.    

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin called an unnecessary war upon Ukraine, his country continues to lose power, money, and people every day. More than 1,000 companies have curtailed or suspended operations in Russia. Bartenders are pulling Russian-made products off their shelves, and several U.S. governors, like Mike DeWine of Ohio and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, have issued orders restricting sales of some Russian-made vodkas. Several sports federations and leagues have aggressively sidelined Russia’s teams and athletes, including FIFA, who suspended all Russian teams from international competition. 

Multiple major sporting events have been relocated from Russian cities—for example, the International Automobile Federation canceled its Russian Grand Prix. Many are boycotting Russian entertainers, as opera singer Anna Netrebko was forbidden from performing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Russian delegations were disinvited from the Cannes Film Festival. Tech giants restricted access to Russian state-owned news outlets like Sputnik across the European Union. Even the International Cat Federation banned Russian cats from entering any international competitions. 

While it is true that Griner should have been aware of the specific laws before entering Russia, it is also true that she is receiving a punishment far harsher than those who have committed worse crimes. Griner was granted an appeal date for Oct. 25, where one of her lawyers argued that the “punishment imposed on Griner does not correspond to the gravity of the crime.” Another lawyer stated that nine years in prison is not in line with international legal norms and even outside the norm of the Russian legal system. A Russian court denied the appeal for a reduced prison sentence. 

Nine years in prison for the amount of cannabis oil she had, especially after pleading guilty and the court’s acknowledgement of her athletic status, is a power play to put Russia back on top, specifically at a time when the U.S. is at odds with Russia over the war in Ukraine. So far on top that U.N. ambassadors and Biden might have to beg to bring home a woman who should have been released months ago—or never even detained. 

At Griner’s hearing on Aug. 2, her lawyers even argued that the state-appointed forensic expert who examined the cartridges found in her luggage made technical and procedural errors. When another forensic expert was called to testify, he said that “the examination [of the cartridges] does not comply with the legislation regarding the completeness of the study and does not comply with the norms of the [Russian Criminal] Code.” 

This whole case appears to be a horribly-made movie where everything is one large question to the point of audience frustration. 

Griner has spoken to her wife, Cherelle, on the phone just twice since February—the first time, providing relief from hearing each other’s voice, and the second time, leaving the couple in tears for days. Griner’s family feels as though they will never see her again, her teammates and coaches are at a loss for words, and fans are grappling with the fact that an incredibly accomplished athlete has been stripped of her freedoms because she’s caught in the crossfire between Russia and its ego. 

While Griner sits in a small cell with two other English-speakers—permitted to shower twice a week and given one-hour of outside time—she is rapidly losing hope of being able to go home. Even if she is able to return to the U.S., what price will her freedom cost her? 

The Biden administration offered to free the imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout—nicknamed the “Merchant of Death”—to secure the release of Griner and another wrongfully imprisoned American, former U.S. Marine Paul N. Whelan who was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 for espionage charges. Bout was accused of supplying arms to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and rebels in Rwanda. How is the freedom of Griner and Whelan equivalent to that of a man who inspired a film titled “Lord of War,” a man who conspired to kill innocent people? It is simply not. So allow me to be the one to ask: what the hell is going on? 

Russia has not only imprisoned innocent people to exert power over the United States as its country’s image continues to deteriorate from the backlash of the war, but is also using that power as a gateway to bring home a nefarious criminal. Griner’s mental health is rapidly declining, and Putin’s slimy wheels are turning as he works to recover from his losses—losses that he has caused.