Supporters of WNBA star Brittney Griner increase pressure to bring her home from Russia

WNBA star Brittney Griner appeared in a Russian court Monday and had her detention extended six months, while the court also set a trial date for July 1. Russia accuses her of cannabis oil possession, but the U.S. says she is “wrongfully detained.” Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, an advocacy organization countering LGBTQ discrimination, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss efforts to free Griner.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    WNBA star Brittney Griner appeared in a Russian court today and had her detention extended six months. The court also set a trial date for this Friday, July 1.

    Russian officials accuse her of cannabis oil possession, but the U.S. says she's wrongfully detained.

  • Question:

    Brittney, you want to say something?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In her first appearance in a Russian court in six weeks, Brittney Griner didn't say a word.

  • Question:

    Brittney, how do you feel?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The two-time Olympic gold medalist towered over her police escorts leaving a preliminary hearing outside Moscow.

    Griner was detained at Moscow's airport just days before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Russian officials accused her of carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil and charged her with large-scale drug transportation. If convicted, she faces 10 years in prison.

    The U.S. special presidential envoy for hostage affairs is tasked with her case. Russian officials recently raised the possibility of a prisoner swap, Griner for notorious arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed the Merchant of Death. He's serving a 25-year sentence after being found guilty by a U.S. court of conspiracy to kill Americans and providing aid to terrorist organizations.

    Griner's supporters are pushing the Biden administration to do more to get her released.

  • Man:

    We're here. We're here for her.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Using the hashtag #WeAreBG.

  • Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics:

    She's been over there for an extended amount of time. And we feel like enough is enough.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    More than 30 civil and human rights organizations wrote a letter to President Biden, urging him to make a deal and bring Griner home.

    And joining me now is the leader of one of those groups that signed that letter. Sarah Kate Ellis is the president and CEO of GLAAD, an advocacy organization dedicated to countering LGBTQ discrimination.

    Sarah Kate Ellis, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    So, you were one of the organizations that signed on to this letter, which asks the administration to make a deal. Why?

  • Sarah Kate Ellis, President, GLAAD:

    We're deeply concerned about Brittney, the treatment that she's having over there. She's been detained there now for 130 days. She has been away from her wife, her family, her teammates.

    And Brittney is an American hero. She's a wife, like I said, a daughter, a sister, a friend. She's an anti-bullying advocate, an Olympian, and a WNBA star superstar. So, we want her brought home, and brought home quickly and swiftly.

    And we understand that the Biden administration is working on this. And we want to keep on all the pressure that we can. We hope that this will get brought to a conclusion quickly.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why do you believe it's worth a deal, even if that deal is for somebody, as we just reported, a notorious arms dealer convicted in a U.S. court of conspiracy to kill Americans and aiding terrorist organizations?

  • Sarah Kate Ellis:

    I would say that Brittney is — I'm not into the dealmaking, and I'm not going to make a deal whose life is more valuable here.

    But I — what I do know is who Brittney is as a person and an upstanding citizen. And one of the reasons — all the conversations we're having today, one of the reasons she was over there in Russia is her love of basketball, but also, I mean, the base salary for a male NBA player is $5 million. The base for a WNBA player, a female, is $120,000. So this was a means for her to continue to supplement her income.

    And I think when you see that there's this pay — enormous pay gap that drove her there in the first place, it's a horrible thing. And we need to see this result quickly and soon.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There's questions of equity, of course, also questions of discrimination inside Russia.

    The LGBTQ community has been vilified, prosecuted, persecuted as well by the Kremlin. Are you worried about her safety?

  • Sarah Kate Ellis:

    Absolutely, 100 percent.

    Russia is not a safe place for LGBTQ people. We have known that for a very long time. And we want to say Brittney brought back home for that reason as well. She — we — I think that that puts her in a more dangerous situation. And I think that we worry about her safety.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you fear that her detention is motivated as much by much — as much by the kind of Kremlin's anti-LGBTQ policy as it is any kind of Russian attempt to gain leverage over the U.S.?

  • Sarah Kate Ellis:

    The main — the big thing about Russia is, there is no transparency. And so you never know what is really happening or why anything is really happening and what the motivation is.

    The truth is very far detached oftentimes from Russian manipulation. And so we don't know what's going on. And that makes it even more worrisome for her wife and her family and her teammates and her friends. It's very worrisome, because we — there is no transparency. And Russia is not a safe place for LGBTQ people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, quickly — I have got about 45 seconds left — Griner's wife has spoken to Secretary Blinken, but not to President Biden. I know that's been a specific request.

    Have you heard at all from the White House?

  • Sarah Kate Ellis:

    We haven't heard from the White House, but I have complete confidence that they are working on this matter and that they are going to get a speedy decision and get Brittney home to us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sarah Kate Ellis, thank you very much.

  • Sarah Kate Ellis:

    Thank you.

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