Brittney Griner’s release is not a priority for Russia, a Kremlin official says

Yury Ushakov, adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Sunday that releasing WNBA basketball player Brittney Griner, who is being held in a Russian jail for bringing a small amount of cannabis oil into the country, is not a priority for Russia.

President Joe Biden has attempted to bring Griner home and has ordered his administration to “contact the Russian government through all available channels and make every effort to bring her back [Griner and Paul Whelan] home.” Whelan is an American Marine serving 16 years in a Russian prison on espionage charges.

Ushakov said, however, that Biden would not announce those attempts until the upcoming midterm elections in November.

“In this tense situation, I think his primary concern is the upcoming midterm elections, so he keeps emphasizing the need to bring home the basketball player who was jailed for drug smuggling. However, that is not the main issue that we are concerned about,” Ushakov said in an interview with Rossiya-1, Russia’s TASS news agency reported.

Brittney Griner's release not a priority for Russia
Above, WNBA basketball player Brittney Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, awaits a ruling during an August 4 hearing that Griner’s release is not a priority for Russia.

The White House said earlier this month there had been no progress in negotiations with Russian officials to release Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow airport in February.

In August, the athlete was sentenced by a Russian court to nine years in prison and a fine of around US$16,000 after being found guilty of criminally involved in drug smuggling. Since then she has been trying to appeal her sentence.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a news conference this month that the 31-year-old basketball player was “wrongly arrested by Russian authorities.”

The press secretary also said at the time that Russia should look into the offer the Biden administration announced in July to secure Griner’s release. The Biden administration proposed releasing Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer also known as the “dealer of death,” in exchange for Whelan and Griner.

Meanwhile, Biden said on Tuesday that he has no intention of speaking to Putin during the upcoming G20 summit unless it is about Griner’s release.

“Look, I have no intention of meeting with him,” Biden said. “But if he came to me at the G20, for example, and said, ‘I want to talk about the release of Griner,’ I would meet with him.”

Griner’s Prison Conditions

The Phoenix Mercury star is currently serving her sentence in a Russian penal colony known to have barracks surrounded by barbed wire fences. Penal colonies have long existed in Russia, but they have evolved from the often-deadly forced labor camps of former Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin to today’s model, in which prisoners do less-than-hard labor, like sewing military uniforms, rather than mining operate.

However, the current prison conditions have severely affected the basketball player’s well-being, according to one of her Russian lawyers. The New York Times reported on Wednesday.

Griner lives in a small cell with two other people who speak English and are also accused of drugs. She also slept on a small bed that couldn’t accommodate her six-foot-tall frame until April, when Russian journalist Ekaterina Kalugina, who reportedly visited her in prison, told a Russian prison supervisory commission that she needed a larger bed.

Kalugina told that Times that the WNBA player, along with other women in prison, is only allowed to shower twice a week. Griner also frequently suffers from aches and pains, the reporter learned during the visit.

Meanwhile, attorney Alexandr Boykov said the temperature at the penal colony where Griner is being held changes dramatically depending on the weather. The attorney added that Griner is only allowed to be outside for an hour a day, which she uses to do laps in a “small yard.”

news week has reached out to the White House for comment. Brittney Griner’s release is not a priority for Russia, a Kremlin official says

Rick Schindler

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