By Rosa Flores, Jacqueline Rose and Alexa Miranda, CNN
Updated: Tue, 05 Jul 2022 20:03:15 GMT
WNBA star Brittney Griner, in a handwritten letter to President Joe Biden, said she fears she will be detained in Russia indefinitely and pleaded with the President not to forget about her and other American detainees.
"(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," she wrote, according to a statement released by the communications company representing the Griner family.
Griner, 31, who has played in Russia during the WNBA's offseason, was arrested February 17 at a Moscow airport, a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. Russian authorities claimed she had cannabis oil in her luggage and accused her of smuggling significant amounts of a narcotic substance, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. She went on trial at a court near Moscow on Friday on drug smuggling charges.
Griner's supporters and US officials say she has been wrongfully detained and have called for her release as fears mount that she is being used as a political pawn amid rising tensions between Russia and the US.
Griner's letter to Biden, according to the statement from the communications company, was delivered to the White House on Monday morning. Three excerpts from the letter were made public, while the rest is being kept private, the statement said.
"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. It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year," Griner wrote to Biden.
"I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don't forget about me and the other American Detainees. 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. 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."
Biden has read the handwritten letter, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday.
"We are going to use every tool that we possibly can" to bring Griner home, she added.
The White House reiterated Monday that "the Russian Federation is wrongfully detaining Brittney Griner."
"President Biden has been clear about the need to see all U.S. nationals who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad released, including Brittney Griner. The U.S. government continues to work aggressively -- using every available means -- to bring her home," National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement to CNN.
"The President's team is in regular contact with Brittney's family and we will continue to work to support her family," Watson said, adding that national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken "have spoken several times with Brittney's wife in recent weeks and the White House is closely coordinating with the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, who has met with Brittney's family, her teammates, and her support network."
Griner's wife, Cherelle, told CNN last week she wants US officials to do whatever they have to do to bring the basketball legend home -- and she needs to see them do more.
In the only interview she gave on the eve of her wife's trial in Russia, Cherelle Griner sat in the Phoenix Mercury locker room and called for more action.
"It's really, really difficult. This is not a situation where the rhetoric is matching the action," she said. "I do have to unfortunately push people to make sure that the things they're telling me is also matching their actions, and so it's been the hardest thing to balance because I can't let up. It's over 130 days and BG's still not back."
The US House of Representatives last month passed a bipartisan resolution calling on the Russian government to immediately release the WNBA star.
"Not a day goes by that we aren't thinking of Brittney and working to get her home," Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton of Arizona, who sponsored the resolution, said in a statement. "We will continue to push for her release and make sure that she is not forgotten."
Stanton previously served as mayor of Phoenix, where Griner plays for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury.
Stanton introduced the resolution in May along with Democratic Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Colin Allred of Texas, Griner's home state.
"I'm grateful for this overwhelming show of support from Congress. We need to be doing all we can to keep Brittney's case on the forefront and finally put an end to this nightmare," Cherelle Griner said in a statement at the time.
Vanessa Nygaard, the first-year head coach for the Phoenix Mercury, reacted Monday to Griner's letter during a news conference in Los Angeles ahead of her team's game against the Sparks.
"It made me cry, you know, just hearing her words talking about her father being a Vietnam vet, her new perspective on freedom, her wanting to be with her family and her teammates, her not knowing if she'll ever be free again. On our day of freedom, hearing those words from such a beloved person ... It's great, and it's great that she was able to get that message to us and hopefully some people are paying attention to it and, of course, the Biden administration and our State Department putting that at the front of their messaging would be amazing for us," Nygaard said.
The Mercury announced last week that a special public rally in support of Griner will be held Wednesday at the Footprint Center in Phoenix. The event is being hosted in coordination with Stanton's office, and Cherelle Griner will be a featured speaker.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Brittney Griner.
This story has been updated with a response from the White House on Tuesday.