Brittney Griner urges people to show support for a second American jailed in Russia

A graphic composed of images of WNBA star Brittney Griner and US marine Paul Whelan, both of whom were detained in Russia

Brittney Griner has said letters from fans helped her ‘never lose hope’ while detained in Russia and urged fans to show the same support for Paul Whelan, a fellow American still imprisoned in the country.

The WNBA star said in a handwritten message, which she shared on Instagram, that words of support from fans kept her spirits up while she was detained on drug charges for nearly 10 months before returning to the US in a prisoner swap. 

She said such letters helped her keep hope at a time when she was “full of regret and vulnerable in ways [she] could have never imagined”.

Griner asked her fans to do the same for Whelan, who was arrested in Russia in 2018, and included an address where they can send supportive messages to the imprisoned American.

“Because of you I never lost hope,” Griner wrote. “Your letters were also bigger than uplifting me. They showed me the power of collective hands.”

She continued: “Together we can do hard things. I’m living proof of that.”

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The two-time Olympic gold medal winner shared how her family is now “whole” again thanks to the efforts of the Biden administration and others to bring her home.

She reminded fans there are “too many families with loved ones wrongfully detained” and asked for them to now show their support for Whelan. 

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“Those families stood alongside you and all who support the We Are BG campaign to bring me home, and it’s our turn to support them,” Brittney Griner added.

“I hope you’ll join me in writing to Paul Whelan and continuing to advocate for other Americans to be rescued and returned to their families.”

The Phoenix Mercury star was first arrested in Russia in February – days before Russia invaded Ukraine – after authorities reportedly found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

A Russian court later convicted Griner on drug charges and sentenced the basketball star to nine years in a penal colony

US marine Paul Whelan holds up a sign reading 'sham trial' while standing in the defendant's area during his trial in Russia
Paul Whelan hopes the Biden administration will do “everything they could” to get him back to the US. (Getty)

Former US marine Paul Whelan was given a 16-year jail sentence in 2020 after being arrested in Moscow on alleged espionage charges in 2018.

US officials denounced Whelan’s trial as unfair, and the American has repeatedly denied the allegations against him. 

Whelan’s family and Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle, met with president Joe Biden in September to discuss what the US was doing to secure the release of their loved ones. 

The marine was not part of the prisoner swap which saw Griner released in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “merchant of death”, on 8 December. 

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WNBA star Brittney Griner wears a white and purple top as she stares upwards during a basketball game
Brittney Griner was released on 8 December 2020 and returned to the US during a prisoner exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. (Getty)

Biden acknowledged Whelan and his family while speaking about efforts to release Griner at a White House press conference. The president said the prisoner swap for Griner was “not a choice of which American to bring home” and that his administration will keep pushing for Whelan’s release. 

“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” Biden said.

“And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”

Whelan told CNN he was surprised he had been left behind after Griner’s release. He explained he was “led to believe that things were moving in the right direction” and that “something would happen fairly soon” given the fact “governments were negotiating”. 

Still, Whelan hoped the Biden administration would do “everything they could to get [him] home, despite the price they might have to pay at this point”. 

“I would say that if a message could go to President Biden, that this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly,” he said.

“My bags are packed. I’m ready to go home. I just need an aeroplane to come and get me.”

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