Brittney Griner: Former US ambassador could fly to Russia for release talks

Brittney Griner walks to the court

A former US ambassador is expected to travel to Russia in the near future to discuss securing the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner. 

Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges on 7 July after reportedly being found with canabbis oil vape cartridges in her luggage at a Russian airport.

She told the Khimki Court near Moscow that she “didn’t want to break the law”, and that she had accidentally packed the cartridges while rushing. She could face up to 10 years in a Russian penal colony if convicted, with her next court hearing is scheduled for Thursday (14 July). 

Sources told ABC News that former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson is reportedly traveling to Moscow in the next couple of weeks in an attempt to help free the Phoenix Mercury player. 

The former diplomat and US ambassador to the United Nations – who privately works on behalf of families of hostages and detainees – is also expected to try to negotiate the release of Paul Whelan, a former Marine who’s been held in Russia for three and a half years.

Richardson started a non-profit organisation that helps with global conflict resolution as well as prisoner and hostage release. In April, he helped secure the release of former US marine Trevor Reed from Russia. 

Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle, told ABC that she requested Richardson’s help and would support a trip if it did take place. 

“We asked the Richardson Center to help, and I’m encouraged that he might be going,” Cherelle said in a statement through Brittney Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas 

Brittney Griner wears a black Phoenix Mercury jersey with white panelling as she runs down a basketball court. Her hair is styled in locks and her arm has tattoos on it and she looks to the side at someone else

Brittney Griner has remained in a Russian jail since February as the US government and sporting world protest her detainment. (Getty/Christian Petersen)

The 31-year-old basketball icon was detained in an airport near Moscow in February after authorities allegedly found vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis in her luggage. 

Griner had travelled to Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg in an attempt to boost her income during the WNBA’s off-season – a common practice for WNBA players. Experts said Griner only had to play in Russia because of gender pay gaps and wouldn’t have gone abroad if “pay deals were different”.

The Biden administration declared Griner as “wrongfully detained” in May. Griner has personally written to the president and begged him for help as she’s “terrified” she may be trapped in Russia “forever”.

Richardson, who doesn’t represent the White House, has said multiple times that he and his organisation are working to secure Griner’s freedom. The Richardson Center for Global Engagement refused to comment on the potential visit, but it did confirm to ABC News that Griner and Whelan families asked the team for “help with the release of their loved ones”. 

The White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesperson, Adrienne Watson, said the office was “in touch” with Richardson and valued his efforts, but declined to comment any further.

“We appreciate his commitment to getting Americans home and are pursuing the release of Brittney and Paul through government channels,” Watson added. 

Brittney Griner wears a purple and orange Phoenix Mercury jersey during a basketball game

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury is seen during the game against the Indiana Fever on 6 September 2021. (Getty/Michael Hickey)

Richardson told CNN after Griner’s plea that “any prisoner in a situation like this” needs to do anything they can if they believe it can “help them survive the ordeal”. 

“She is fighting for her life,” Richardson said.

He explained he’s “working hard on trying to secure the safe return” of Griner and Whelan, but he wouldn’t say anything else due to “ongoing efforts”. 

President Biden and vice president Kamala Harris have spoken with Cherelle about her wife’s detainment and efforts to bring her back to the US, according to a statement from the White House

During the call, Biden offered his “support to Cherelle and Brittney’s family” and committed himself to “ensuring they are provided with all possible assistance while his administration pursues every avenue to bring Brittney home”. 

Brittney Griner’s legal team said it hoped Russian courts would consider her guilty plea and her “positive” contributions to the world of sport when handing down a sentence. Grinder “decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people”, they added.

The legal team continued: “Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and [Griner’s] personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defence hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence.”