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Brittney Griner Walks in MLK Day March Weeks After Her Release From a Russian Prison

PopSugar logo PopSugar 1/17/2023 Angelica Wilson
Brittney Griner Walks in MLK Day March Weeks After Her Release From a Russian Prison © Getty / Mike Mattina Brittney Griner Walks in MLK Day March Weeks After Her Release From a Russian Prison

Since Brittney Griner returned home Dec. 8, the WNBA star has been enjoying her newfound freedom after being held in Russia for almost a year on drug charges. On Monday, she participated in a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

The 32-year-old took part in a march in Phoenix, AZ, alongside her wife, Cherelle Griner. "Glad to be home," Griner told fans during the event, reported local NBC affiliate KPNX. The Phoenix Mercury center is shown riding on the back of a golf cart smiling with her arm around her wife in 12 News Anchor Jonathan McCall's Instagram post.

Cherelle spoke out at the end of December, shortly after Brittney was released from captivity. "I was hopeless a lot of days," Cherelle told People. "You try and stay grounded, but I'm human. Still, I would never completely give up hope on my wife's life."

Cherelle has spent the past 10 months advocating and pleading for her wife's release, working with President Joe Biden to secure Brittney's return. When she was told that Brittney was finally on a plane home from Russia, Cherelle finally began to feel relieved.

"I had thought about that moment a thousand times, and I thought I would be full of tears," Cherelle told People. "But I was overwhelmingly happy. It was the first time I was able to finally exhale, and I'm like, 'Oh, thank God, this is such a great day.'"

When the two first saw each other from the window of the plane, they were "instantly crying," Cherelle said. "I was standing there full of tears and someone ran over and handed me a handkerchief. I definitely needed it."

Upon Brittney's return to the US, she and Cherelle spent several weeks at Joint Base San Antonio, where Brittney was given a medical and physical checkup. She was also able to get in her first workout since being detained. On Dec. 11, Brittney got back on the basketball court, where she made sure to hit a slam dunk, per ESPN.

Brittney and Cherelle have since returned to their shared home in Arizona where they are still getting adjusted. "The first night, we didn't sleep at all," Cherelle told People. "We just talked all night long and all morning. And it was so good to be able to do it without three weeks in between the conversation, because for 10 months we were passing letters. It was great to have that dialogue back and forth."

These letters from both Cherelle and fans are what kept Brittney motivated while in Russia. On Dec. 21, Brittney wrote in an emotional Instagram post, "Because of you I never lost hope. Your letters were also bigger than uplifting me. They showed me the power of collective hands. Together, we can do hard things." Brittney went on to encourage her fans to do the same for American detainee Paul Whelan, who is still in Russia. "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," Brittney added, including Whelan's contact information.

This isn't the first time Brittney has spoken out since her release. In an Instagram post on Dec. 16, she wrote: "It feels so good to be home! The last 10 months have been a battle at every turn. I dug deep to keep my faith and it was the love from so many of you that helped keep me going. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone for your help."

Brittney also announced her return to the Phoenix Mercury in this post. "I also want to make one thing very clear: I intend to play basketball for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury this season, and in doing so, I look forward to being able to say 'thank you' to those of you who advocated, wrote, and posted for me in person soon," she wrote.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist had been detained in Russia since February after cannabis oil was found on her person when she arrived at a Russian airport. She was subsequently sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony, which are known for harsh conditions, such as inmate manual labor and poor access to medical care, according to CNN.

Brittney was freed as part of a swap on Dec. 8; President Biden agreed to release imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in order to bring Brittney home. Here's everything we know about her detention, sentencing, and release.

Why Was Brittney Griner in Russia?

Griner flew to Russia to play on the UMMC Ekaterinburg team. The 31-year-old has been a member of the Russian basketball team for several WNBA off-seasons. But this particular trip came at a tense time; Griner was detained shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine. The US State Department had issued a "Do Not Travel" advisory weeks earlier, citing the ongoing tension.

The two-time Olympian might have chosen to play overseas during this off-season for many different reasons - including to earn some extra cash. WNBA players typically earn between $60,000 and $229,000, while NBA players can earn upward of $40 million. According to an Associated Press report, "[a]lmost half of the WNBA's 144 players" went overseas during the 2022 off-season, with high-ranking athletes earning more than $1 million. WNBA athlete Liz Cambage said on "NBA Today" that she is able to earn "five to eight times more" by playing overseas.

Why Was Brittney Griner Detained?

In her first court appearance, Griner was accused of transporting a "significant amount" of cannabis oil, per The Washington Post. The charges allege that before traveling to Russia in February, Griner "bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil," as reported by Russian state news agency TASS. In her July 7 hearing, Griner told the court that she did not purposely break the law. "I'd like to plead guilty, your [honor]. But there was no intent. I didn't want to break the law," Griner said, per Reuters. Griner's lawyers also told Russian judges in another hearing that the cannabis was prescribed for medicinal use for "severe chronic pain," according to CNN.

"We continue to insist that, by indiscretion, in a hurry, she packed her suitcase and did not pay attention to the fact that substances allowed for use in the United States ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation," Boykov stated, according to CNN.

On June 27, Griner opened up about her initial detainment at the airport. She testified that she was forced to sign documents without understanding what they said, per CNN. Griner said that she was not read her rights and that she tried to use Google Translate on her phone to understand the documents but "barely knew what was in them." After the first round of paperwork, Griner said she was later taken to another room, her phone was taken away, and she was forced to sign even more confusing documents with no explanation. Griner said no attorney was present.

Nearly two months later, on Aug. 4, Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian court for smuggling drugs into the country. President Biden released a statement regarding Griner's sentencing: "Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It's unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible."

But on Oct. 25, Griner was given more bad news when a Russian court denied her sentence appeal. The court called the original nine-year sentence "fair," according to CNBC. "[Griner] had some hope but that vanished today," Blagovolina told reporters outside the courtroom that day, according to CNBC.

When Was Brittney Griner Released?

The news of Griner's release broke on the morning of Thursday, Dec 8. As early as August 2022, Russia had confirmed it was in prisoner-swap negotiations with the United States. At the time, President Biden had reportedly offered convicted Russian arms trafficker Bout (then serving out a 25-year sentence in the United States) in exchange for Griner and American Paul Whelan, according to CNN. But while Griner was released, Whelan was not, reports The New York Times. After Griner's safe return home, her family's statement made a point to thank "Paul and the Whelan family who have been generous with their support for Brittney and our family during what we know is a heartbreaking time. We pray for Paul and for the swift and safe return of all wrongfully-detained Americans."

From the start, the situation of Griner's detainment sparked outrage among her family, fellow players, fans, human-rights organizations, and more, all of whom were calling for the basketball star's release. A #FreeBrittneyGriner movement emerged on social media. And on June 22, several groups, including the National Organization For Women, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Urban League, and the National Action Network, banded together to send a letter to President Biden and Vice President Harris, per The New York Times. The letter urged the administration "to make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely."

In July 2022, Griner herself pleaded to the president directly in a handwritten letter. She expressed that she was "terrified I might be here forever," reports CNN. "I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don't forget about me and the other American Detainees," Griner said. "Please do all you can to bring us home."

"It's like a movie for me," Griner's wife, Cherelle, said in an interview with Gayle King on "CBS Mornings" in early October 2022. "I'm like, 'In no world did I ever thought, you know, our president and a foreign nation president would be sitting down having to discuss the freedom of my wife.' And so to me, as much as everybody's telling me a different definition of what B.G. is, it feels to me as if she's a hostage."

Cherelle added, "I mean, this is my life and so I'm sitting there like, 'Do we get her back? Do I ever get to see my wife again?' Like, what happens here? The fact that everything's so unprecedented and everything's, like, changeable I think is a really good word. Like, I feel like every day I'm hearing something new, and so it's just kind of like, it's terrifying."

What Is Hash Oil?

Hash oil is extracted from cannabis, an illegal substance in Russia. Under Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code, someone who commits an offense related to the "illegal acquisition, storage, transportation, making or processing of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances or analogues thereof" could face up to 10 years in prison.

- Additional reporting by Alexis Jones, Lauren Mazzo, Sara Youngblood Gregory, Mirel Zaman, and Melanie Whyte.

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