Cherelle Griner was scheduled to speak with her wife, WNBA player Brittney Griner, on Saturday for the first time since February, when the basketball star was arrested in Russia. But Brittney’s call never came through, Cherelle told the Associated Press on Monday. Cherelle feared that Russian authorities had blocked their efforts—but she later discovered the call did not take place because the U.S. embassy wasn’t staffed over the weekend.
Griner, a Black queer woman and basketball player for the Phoenix Mercury, has been detained for over 120 days in Russia on drug possession charges. After several months of relative silence from the U.S. government, the Biden administration finally classified Griner as a wrongfully detained hostage in May. Since then, Cherelle Griner has given multiple interviews calling for elected officials and the public to demand her wife’s release.
To Cherelle, the U.S. embassy’s scheduling snafu speaks a lot louder than the diplomats’ empty promises.
Cherelle told the AP that she had been scheduled to speak to Brittney on their fourth anniversary, and that the call had been scheduled for two weeks. According to Brittney’s lawyers who spoke with Cherelle, Brittney reportedly called the American embassy in Moscow 11 times over several hours on Saturday and never got through. Cherelle now has not heard her wife’s voice in over four months.
State Department officials said in a statement Monday that they “deeply regretted” the “logistical error” that took place, restating that it has “no higher priority” than rescuing wrongfully detained Americans overseas, apologizing directly to Cherelle for the mishap. She later learned that the number her wife was given only takes calls from prisoners only on weekdays.
“I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now,” she told the AP. “If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home?”
U.S. government officials have repeatedly told the public that getting Brittney Griner home safely is a priority. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that he’s “personally” focused on the situation, and that bringing her home is a “matter of intense focus” for the government. The State Department has said the government will “continue to undertake efforts to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner.” And officials say they have “been working toward her release,” all but avoiding the word “negotiating.”
While the hostage negotiations process is a delicate one, Cherelle is losing patience. After spending her anniversary crying instead of speaking to her wife, she told the AP: “I was done, fed up. ...I wasn’t well, I’m still not well.” She added that she still wants to meet with President Joe Biden, but “at this point, it’s starting to feel like a no.”
“This would have been the first time for me to actually just hear her in real time and to truly know if she’s OK or to know if she’s seconds away from not being in existence anymore,” Cherelle said.
Since Brittney Griner’s arrest in a Russian airport for allegedly carrying hashish oil in her luggage, NBA stars like Chris Paul and LeBron James have spoken out on her behalf, and activists and supporters gathered in New York to protest Griner’s detention on Monday.
The Griners’ missed call comes less than a week after Russian officials again extended Brittney’s detention into July. Several experts told ESPN the extension was not a surprise, and that, until the U.S. reaches a deal for Griner’s release, they expect additional extensions. A spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin told NBC News on Monday that he does not believe Griner is a political prisoner, claiming she is no different from “hundreds and hundreds of Russian citizens that were sentenced for carrying hashish.”
That the Griners’ latest heartbreak came in the middle of Pride month and on the weekend of Juneteenth, the ache of a wrongfully detained queer Black woman in a country hostile to the LGBTQ+ community feels sharper than ever.