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Brittney Griner’s wife says WNBA star is at “weakest moment” before final hearing could send her to a Russian labor camp

The two-time Olympic champion’s wife spoke out for the first time since Griner’s sentencing two months ago in an interview with CBS’ Gayle King.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
United States’s Brittney Griner (15) flexes her muscle after making a basket during a women’s basketball quarterfinal round game against Australia at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Saitama, Japan.

WASHINGTON — WNBA star Brittney Griner, a Houston native who has been sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison, is at her "weakest moment," according to her wife who worries the two-time Olympic gold medalist will be moved to a labor camp if American officials do not negotiate her release soon.

Cherelle Griner, who has been married to Brittney Griner since 2019, spoke out for the first time since her wife's sentencing two months ago in an interview with "CBS Mornings" co-host Gayle King that broadcast Thursday. In it, she called the Phoenix Mercury center a "hostage" in Russia.

On Oct. 25, Russian court officials will hear Brittney Griner's appeal of that prison sentence.

"Once that hearing is held and the order is finalized ... she could be moved to a labor camp," Cherelle Griner said in the interview. "My brain can't even fathom it."

Brittney Griner was arrested in a Moscow airport in February after airport officials discovered vape canisters and cannabis oil in her luggage. But news of her detainment didn't break in the United States until March. She pleaded guilty to smuggling drugs into the country. In August, a Russian court sentenced her to nine years in prison.

The White House has been working to secure Brittney Griner's release from Russia, where she has played professionally since 2014. The WNBA player has a medical marijuana prescription in Arizona, but any amount of the substance is illegal in Russia.

There is also concern about the notoriously harsh conditions of Russian prisons and the treatment of Brittney Griner, who is gay, in a country known for homophobic persecution.

"I say she's strong because how are you still standing? How are you still alive going through this?" Cherelle Griner said in the CBS interview. "B.G.'s at her absolute weakest moment in life right now. She's very afraid about being left and forgotten in Russia."

Cherelle Griner and other supporters of the eight-time WNBA All-Star said she is being used as a political pawn by the Russian government. The Biden administration has said that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained and has offered a prisoner swap for her freedom, according to multiple reports.

Cherelle Griner said she thinks President Joe Biden is doing his best to find a solution, but she doesn't think her wife will be released until Russian President Vladimir Putin makes an honest effort to negotiate.

"I feel as if ... [Biden's] doing what he can, but there's another party in this situation," Cherelle Griner said. "At this point, it is going to take Putin to have that same mindset ... ‘I am going to sit at a table and be clear about what I need in return for her release.'"

Brittney Griner plays for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury but plays overseas in Russia in the offseason. Cherelle Griner said her wife has helped contribute to Russia through her time as a professional basketball player there.

Cherelle Griner said Putin should view her wife as an asset who came to Russia to help that country be "recognized through sport" and paid taxes in that country.

Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has been vocal about the need to bring the Texas native home from Russian detention. After praising the prisoner exchange with Russia that freed Texan and former Marine Trevor Reed, Cornyn told KXAN-TV Austin in May he will continue to advocate for Brittney Griner's release.

"We'll continue to advocate, just as we did for Trevor, for the release of these two Americans from this Russian prison," Cornyn said, referring also to former Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018. "But unfortunately they are just trade bait for Putin. He doesn't enter into these negotiations out of a sense of justice or compassion. He's looking for leverage and something to get for what he gives."

And while American officials push for Brittney Griner's release, her wife said she has been through enough, saying she has "truly suffered beyond her crime already."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/10/06/brittney-griner-wife-russia/. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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