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As Brittney Griner Pleads Guilty in Russia, Biden Pressured to Help Free “State-Sponsored Hostage”

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Pressure is growing on the Biden administration to help free U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner from Russian detention as Griner pleaded guilty Thursday in a Russian court to what her supporters say are trumped-up charges of “large-scale drug possession” and “drug smuggling.” Russian officials arrested the two-time U.S. Olympic basketball gold medalist and eight-time WNBA all-star in February at a Moscow airport after allegedly finding two vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. We speak with two reporters covering the case, Dave Zirin and Maya Goldberg-Safir, who say Griner is an unlawfully detained political prisoner. “We can’t separate this case from the Russian war in Ukraine or from the fact that she is a Black lesbian being held by a prominently anti-gay regime,” says Goldberg-Safir. Zirin also criticizes the U.S. sports community, saying the lack of attention spotlighted on her case in part “reveals the tremendous and deep-rooted sexism and homophobia inside mainstream sports media.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to the growing push to free the U.S. basketball superstar Brittney Griner from detention in Russia amidst concerns her case could drag on due to her fame and also her status as an African American lesbian.

In an effort to clear a deal for her release, Brittney Griner pleaded guilty Thursday in a Russian court to what her lawyers say are trumped-up charges of “large-scale drug possession” and “drug smuggling.” This comes after Russian officials at the airport arrested the two-time U.S. Olympic basketball gold medalist and eight-time WNBA all-star in February at a Moscow airport, alleging they found two vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She had just arrived on a flight from New York to play for a basketball team in Russia, which nearly half of professional U.S. players do in order to supplement their income, since the WNBA’s maximum salary is capped at just under $230,000, the WNBA, women’s basketball.

Griner’s trial began last week. Russian officials have said they will only negotiate in her case after the trial is over. Brittney Griner told the court through an interpreter she had no intention of committing a crime, had acted unintentionally because she had packed her luggage in a hurry. Griner still faces conviction and sentencing and is set to appear in court again next Thursday.

As Brittney Griner was escorted to the courtroom in handcuffs, she held a photo of her wife Cherelle. This is Cherelle Griner speaking Wednesday at a “Bring BG Home” rally on the home court of the Phoenix Mercury, Griner’s team in the U.S.

CHERELLE GRINER: What and how I feel today is a deeper emotion than hurt. I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated that 140 days have passed since my wife has been able to speak to me, to our family and to her friends. I’m frustrated that my wife is not going to get justice. I know you all are frustrated, too. That’s why you’re here. This easily could be any one of us. So tonight I ask for your help in continuing to fight for BG’s safe and quick return home. Let’s make sure this administration knows that they have our support to do whatever is necessary and that we are not going to ever be quiet until she’s home safely.

AMY GOODMAN: This week, President Biden and Vice President Harris spoke with Cherelle Griner in their first one-to-one contact after Brittney Griner wrote a letter to Biden pleading for him not to forget about her. The call came more than two weeks after the State Department botched a plan to have the couple speak by phone on their fourth wedding anniversary. The White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked about Griner’s case Thursday.

PRESS SECRETARY KARINE JEAN-PIERRE: We believe that the Russian Federation is holding — is wrongfully — has wrongfully detained Brittney Griner, and she is in intolerable circumstances right now. And we are going to do everything that we can. The president has this top of mind to make sure that we get Brittney home safely, and also Paul Whelan. That is an important — important priority of the president.

AMY GOODMAN: In April, Russia released of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. marine, as part of a prisoner exchange. After Thursday’s court appearance by Griner, the WNBA Players Association said in a statement it stands with Brittney Griner. Griner also got support from U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe Thursday during the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House. As Rapinoe received the award, she wore a white blazer with the initials “BG” embroidered on her lapel alongside stitched flowers. Rapinoe shared the image online, writing, quote, “the most important part of today. BG We Love You.”

For more, we’re joined by two guests. Dave Zirin is host of Edge of Sports podcast, sports editor for The Nation, where his recent article is headlined “Brittney Griner’s Show Trial Begins.” Also with us, Maya Goldberg-Safir, co-director of the Third Coast International Audio Festival, a writer who’s been following Brittney’s case closely. Her latest article is headlined “Brittney Griner And The Labyrinth Of Wrongful Detainment.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! First, let’s start with Maya. Your response to this trial and the trial’s end, with Brittney pleading guilty — right? — to carrying these vape cartridges of cannabis oil, which would not be illegal in the United States, and what this means?

MAYA GOLDBERG-SAFIR: Thank you, Amy.

So, first, I think it’s incredibly important every time we talk about Brittney Griner’s case to first talk about the big issues at play here and be really blunt about it. She is wrongfully detained. It’s been 141 days. And what that means is that this case is political. This is not about justice. This is a case that is decided from above the court, from powers that be. The outcome of this trial is going to be whatever outcome is most favorable to Russia right now and the demands that they’re making on the U.S.

And one of the ways that we know that this is a wrongful detainment is because these charges are very clearly trumped up. You mentioned that the charge she is facing, for up to 10 years in prison, is large-scale possession of cannabis and drug trafficking. And the prosecution themselves have reported that they had found a fraction of a gram of cannabis in her luggage. How is 10 years in prison a deserved sentence?

So it’s really clear here that the legal system is actually being used as a weapon of the state, and this is actually a state-sponsored hostage situation. And as you said, they guilty plea could be a strategic move in an attempt to hasten the negotiations between the U.S. and Russia. What we know is that, no matter what, the outcome will be political, not legal.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, you’ve long written that she is a political prisoner. The U.S. State Department said that she is being wrongfully detained. Can you talk also — both response to what’s happening now, Cherelle and the family thinking that her case was not top priority? I mean, you have this failed call that was supposed to go through, set up by the U.S. Embassy, but they didn’t staff the phone, so Brittney called it 21 times, and Cherelle didn’t get that call. Finally, you get Brittney Griner begging President Biden in a personal letter that was handed to him, saying that she is terrified she will be in Russia for the rest of her life. Talk about the significance of all of this, and also the possible prisoner exchange.

DAVE ZIRIN: Absolutely, let’s talk about both of those things. First of all, credit to Maya, who’s been on this story from the beginning.

I think what we have to understand, Amy, is that the sports world, there were two wings when Brittney Griner was first found to be effectively disappeared by the Russian criminal justice system. There was a wing that loved Brittney Griner so much, around the WNBA and basketball circles more generally, that they listened to the State Department give them awful advice to just be quiet for months, to not only not say a word, but to tell others to be quiet. I mean, I spoke to so many people in and around the WNBA who wanted to comment about Brittney, to call for her to come home, but were told that silence was the best option for a negotiation. It clearly was not.

And then there’s another wing of the sports world that did not love Brittney Griner nearly enough, and I’m talking about the mainstream sports world that would have raised heaven and hell to the earth if it had been, say, a Tom Brady or a Steph Curry who was behind bars facing 10 years in a Russian prison. And that reveals the tremendous and deep-rooted sexism and homophobia inside mainstream sports media.

Now, you asked about the idea of a prisoner exchange. I mean, the name that’s been floated greatly is a man named Viktor Bout, who is an arms dealer in U.S. custody who has the nickname in U.S. circles as the “merchant of death,” which is ironic because that phrase “merchant of death” actually comes to describe — its roots are in U.S. arm manufacturers from the 1930s. Now, Viktor Bout, this should be an easy —

AMY GOODMAN: I think it’s Viktor Bout [pron. Boot].

DAVE ZIRIN: Bout, I’m sorry. I’m sorry about that. The issue with Viktor Bout is that there are people in the Biden administration who think that that trade is actually too much for Brittney Griner and are trying to slow that idea. But I think one of the reasons they’re trying to slow it is that Viktor Bout was an arms dealer for the United States and for U.S. client states and played a big role in the era after 9/11 in terms of transporting Army contractors into the Middle East. So, perhaps they don’t want him out speaking about what he knows. But, to me, this would be an easy decision in terms of trading Viktor Bout and getting Brittney Griner home. But like I said, there are conflicts in the Biden administration about whether they want to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, the significance, Maya, of who exactly Brittney Griner is, her power in sports right now? She herself — and you talked about this in our previous conversation — wrote a book about her own life, Life Out Loud, as an athlete, as a lesbian, as an African American lesbian. Talk about what that means and to have her held captive and the reason she’s played in Russia for so many years — what, more than eight years now — because of the lack of pay equity.

MAYA GOLDBERG-SAFIR: Brittney Griner is truly a trailblazer in sports. And I think that her story oftentimes goes overlooked. She was the first openly gay number one draft pick in the WNBA in 2013, and she really changed the game. She fundamentally changed the way that the league relates to its queer players and fans, coaches. And I think she has made an incredible impact on sports.

Now as she is being detained, I think we can’t separate this case from the Russian war in Ukraine or from the fact that she is a Black lesbian being held by a prominently anti-gay regime. And she faces dangers and, I think, has a specific target on her back because of that. And we see this, I think, when we see her paraded through the courthouse with multiple guards — there was a police dog at one point — handcuffed. And we also see this in even the U.S. media coverage, that is really narrowing in on the possibility of her guilt or hashing out the alleged crimes according to Russian media, reprinting their claims. I think this is not a fair or safe position for Brittney Griner to be in.

And what is most important, and what’s most important for U.S. reporting, as well, is to, up front, talk about the fact that she is wrongfully detained and that what is most important in this situation, when someone is being held hostage by a state in order to extract demands from the U.S., to extract concessions, is that the government do everything in its power to bring her home. And like Dave mentioned, when there is the possibility of a prisoner exchange on the table, but we know that there are people in D.C. who are opposed on principle and in policy, in informal policy opposed, to that kind of prisoner exchange, we have to wonder: Are they really doing everything they can to bring Americans wrongfully detained home, or are they actually holding up this process and contributing to the detainment of more than 60 Americans who are wrongfully detained right now around the world?

AMY GOODMAN: Griner’s detention, again, in Russia linked to this issue of pay equity, which came up Thursday when Megan Rapinoe became the first soccer player to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a longtime member of U.S. women’s national soccer team, who helped it win two Olympic medals and two World Cup championships. She also joined with other members of the team in suing the U.S. Soccer Federation for gender discrimination in pay, medical care and workload, leading to a landmark $24 million settlement in February and the federation’s pledge to give the women’s national soccer team equal pay to the men’s team in all games and tournaments, including the World Cup. The U.S. women’s soccer team has won four World Cup titles, while the men’s team has won none. Now, keep in mind, Rapinoe is wearing a white blazer with white letters emblazoned on them, “BG,” for Brittney Griner. This is President Biden yesterday.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Megan did something really consequential. She helped lead the change for perhaps the most important victory for anyone on her soccer team or any soccer team: equal pay for women. Equal pay for women.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we’re going to switch gears a little, because among the other people who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom Thursday during that ceremony at the White House was the seven-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles, the most decorated American gymnast of all time. This is President Biden.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today she adds to her medal count of 32. I don’t know where you’re going to find room. Thirty-two Olympic and World Championship medals. At age 25, the youngest person ever to receive the Medal of Freedom. Youngest ever.

AMY GOODMAN: Simone Biles has also spoken out about mental health and sexual assault and is part of a group of some 90 women, including her U.S. fellow Olympic teammates, who have sued the FBI for a billion dollars in damages over its mishandled investigation into sexual abuse by the former U.S. Olympic team doctor Larry Nassar, who’s behind bars now. Most of the women say he abused them after he had already been reported to the FBI in 2015. Dave Zirin, you also have also been following Simone Biles and the women’s gymnastics team for years. Talk about the significance of this, I mean, Simone Biles, how important it is she is recognized, and at the same time she has this massive lawsuit against the FBI.

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, first and foremost, for folks who don’t know, Simone Biles is the greatest athlete of her generation and in the discussion for the greatest athlete of the last century. She does things in gymnastics that other people simply do not do. She has moves named after her that other people simply do not do. She is beyond the parameters of the sport itself.

That being said, she’s also a person of profound principle. And I really do believe, from everything I know about Simone Biles, she would give up that congressional medal that she received — or, the presidential medal, I’m sorry, that she received in a heartbeat, if it would mean that the Justice Department would do its job and actually go after the members of the FBI who let Larry Nassar perform acts of sexual abuse and sexual assault with impunity. That’s what the U.S. gymnastics women want. They want justice. And the only reason they’re going to civil court is that they’re not getting it through the Justice Department. And from everything I know about Simone Biles, I guarantee you she probably did not bite her tongue about that when she was around Biden officials the other day.

AMY GOODMAN: And we will continue to cover that case, as well. Dave Zirin, we thank you for being with us, sports editor for The Nation magazine, host of the Edge of Sports podcast, and Maya Goldberg-Safir, author of the new article in the Defector headlined “Brittney Griner And The Labyrinth Of Wrongful Detainment.” We will link to both your articles.

Coming up, the United States is being accused of helping Israel whitewash the death of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, shot dead in the occupied West Bank in May as the Israeli military raided the Jenin refugee camp. Stay with us.

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U.S. Accused of Whitewashing Israel’s Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh Ahead of Biden’s Middle East Trip

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