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As calls grow to free Brittney Griner, Biden says he's spoken with her wife

A sign calls for Britney Griner's release at a game between Portland Thorns FC and Angel City FC in Los Angeles earlier this month.
Ronald Martinez
Getty Images
A sign calls for Britney Griner's release at a game between Portland Thorns FC and Angel City FC in Los Angeles earlier this month.

Updated July 6, 2022 at 6:15 PM ET

The Biden administration is facing increasing public pressure to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who is on trial in Russia after being detained on drug charges in February.

A Russian judge has ordered Griner to be detained for the length of her trial, which began last Friday. Her next court appearance is slated to begin on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. local time/7:30 a.m. ET.

Griner appealed directly to the president in a handwritten letter delivered to the White House on Monday, urging him not to "forget about me and the other American Detainees."

Griner isn't the only American considered wrongfully detained in Russia. Notably, while Trevor Reed was released in a prisoner exchange in April, fellow former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence of hard labor on espionage charges.

"As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I'm terrified I might be here forever," wrote the Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist, in an excerpt her representatives shared with the Associated Press.

The White House said that Biden read the letter on Tuesday, though Griner's wife Cherelle told CBS News that same day that she was disheartened that she still hadn't heard from him directly.

On Wednesday, the White House announced that both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris had spoken with Cherelle, and reassured her that they are working to free Griner and other U.S. nationals being held in Russia and around the world. The president also reportedly read her a draft of a letter he will send Griner on Wednesday, the White House said.

"The President offered his support to Cherelle and Brittney's family, and he committed to ensuring they are provided with all possible assistance while his administration pursues every avenue to bring Brittney home," the White House said, adding that Biden directed his national security team to remain in regular contact with the families of those being detained abroad.

In the meantime, more of Griner's supporters are speaking out about her case and urging the Biden administration to accelerate its efforts to bring her home safely. And some of them are also sending letters to his residence.

Hundreds of Black women leaders urge Biden to do more

More than a thousand Black women leaders from across the U.S. have petitioned Biden to make a deal to free Griner, according to the collective Win With Black Women, which helped write the letter.

The collective said that nearly 1,200 Black women leaders in various fields — including entertainment, media and sports — signed the letter, which was delivered to the White House on Tuesday.

It claims that Griner is "enduring inhumane conditions" in prison and demands that Biden take concrete action to "this ongoing human rights crisis."

They alleged that Griner is being denied consular access and communication with her loved ones in the U.S.

For example, the letter says that Griner was supposed to call her spouse last week in honor of their wedding anniversary, but "despite 11 attempts to reach Cherelle, there was no one at the State Department to connect Brittney's call."

It urges Biden to meet with Cherelle immediately, and to make a deal to return Griner home "swiftly and safely."

"More than prioritizing her immediate return in word, you must do so in deed and make a deal to bring Brittney home," it reads in part.

The group says the letter's signatories include numerous WNBA players, coaches and executives, as well as prominent signatories such as former acting chair of the Democratic National Committee Donna Brazile, Bernice King — CEO of the King Center and daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. — and Dawn Staley, the University of South Carolina women's basketball coach and three-time Olympic gold medalist.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Staley described the letter as "support from a group of Black women who are trying to save another Black woman."

"I think about Brittney throughout the entire day, every day," she added. "I try to put myself in her shoes, and I'd want somebody fighting for me — people who won't shut up."

Tennessee State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a self-described proud signatory of the letter, said on Twitter that Win With Black Women is "always at the forefront of fighting for and defending" Black women. The group calls itself a "collective of intergenerational, intersectional Black women leaders throughout the nation making a difference."

Their letter comes on the heels of recent comments made by Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard, in which she invoked Griner's race, gender and sexual orientation and questioned the message being sent by not bringing her home sooner.

"If it was LeBron, he'd be home, right?" Nygaard told reporters on Monday. "It's a statement about the value of women. It's a statement about the value of a Black person. It's a statement about the value of a gay person. All of those things. We know it, and so that's what hurts a little more."

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre addressed those comments at a Monday briefing, saying that Biden has fought for marginalized communities throughout his career and reiterating that Griner's release is a priority for him.

WNBA star and Olympic medalist Brittney Griner arrives at a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on June 27.
Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
WNBA star and Olympic medalist Brittney Griner arrives at a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on June 27.

Griner's supporters and loved ones speak out

One of the organizers of the letter, per the Post, is Terri Jackson — executive director of the Women's National Basketball Players Association, the union for the WNBA players. She spoke to Morning Edition last week, which she noted was more than 130 days into Griner's detention.

"But we know at the end of the day that this government is going to do whatever it takes to get BG home," Jackson said. "What we want is to know that she is ... a high priority, the highest priority, quite honestly. She's one of ours, so we want to know that she's the highest priority of the Biden administration."

She also called for Biden to have a face-to-face meeting with Cherelle Griner, because "she deserves that."

Cherelle has also recently broken her silence, telling CBS News about her written communications with Griner and her own efforts to try to get her home safely.

"Initially I was told, you know, we are going to try to reserve, we're going to try to handle this behind [the] scenes and let's not raise her value and, you know, stay quiet ... I did that and respectfully, we're over 140 days at this point. That does not work," she said on Tuesday. "So I will not be quiet anymore. I will find that balance of, you know, harm versus help in pushing our government to do everything that's possible because being quiet, they're not moving, they're not doing anything. So my wife is struggling, and we have to help her."

She also discussed Griner's case on an episode of the talk show Keepin' It Real with Al Sharpton last week.

And on Tuesday, Sharpton publicly called on the Biden administration to arrange a meeting with him, Griner and other religious leaders. He reiterated those calls on MSNBC's Morning Joe on Wednesday.

"It's my intention to be in Russia next week and I hope the White House will help to make it possible for me to do a clergy visit to let her know of the support and to let her know that her family and everyone is concerned about her, and to pray with her," he said.

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Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.