'No one should be left behind': WNBA star Brittney Griner reflects on freedom from Russian prison in "20/20" special

ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- WNBA star Brittney Griner reflected on the moment she learned the U.S. secured her freedom from Russian detention and voiced her support for bringing home other Americans wrongfully detained abroad in a special edition of ABC News' 20/20 that is set to air Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on ABC. ABC's Good Morning America will air a first look earlier in the day.

“I saw that paper and I was so thrilled,” Griner told GMA co-anchor Robin Roberts as she reflected on a note she received, which stated she was going to be released from Russian detention after nearly 10 months.

“It said: ‘be ready to leave,’” Griner said, as she recalled reading the note.

Griner, 33, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a nine-time WNBA All-Star who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was detained on Feb. 17, 2022, at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Khimki after she was accused of having vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is illegal in the country. Griner was returning to Russia to play during the WNBA's off-season.

She was detained one week before Russia's invasion of Ukraine began. The war stoked Russian tensions with the U.S. and some U.S. officials, including lawmakers in Griner’s native Houston, expressed concern that Americans jailed in Russia could be used as leverage in the ongoing conflict.

The U.S. State Department classified Griner’s case as "wrongfully detained" in May 2022 and the Biden administration worked for months to secure her freedom.

Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges on July 7, 2022, saying that the vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were in her luggage unintentionally. She testified that she had "no intention" of breaking Russian law and packed the cartridges by accident.

Amid mounting pressure on the U.S. to secure her freedom, the WNBA star was released on Dec. 8, 2022, after U.S. officials agreed to swap Griner for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, whose capture in Thailand in 2008 was the end of a nearly decade-long hunt by the U.S. to stop him.

“Being traded for a person known as ‘the merchant of death’; there were some Americans who thought that wasn't a fair trade,” Roberts told Griner. “That this was a heinous criminal and to be traded when it should have been, perhaps, somebody else. What do you say to those who felt it wasn't a balanced trade?”

”If it was left up to me in that trade, I would have went and got Paul and brought him home,” Griner said, referencing the case of Paul Whelan -- a former U.S. Marine charged with espionage in Russia, where he has been detained since December 2018 and is serving a 16-year prison sentence.

“But any time that we can bring home an American, that is a win for Americans. No one should be left behind,” Griner added.

Roberts asked Griner about an excerpt from her upcoming memoir, Coming Home, which is set to be released on May 7, where Griner writes that she was hoping she would be joined on the plane back to the U.S. by someone else.

“You wrote that you were hoping to see someone else on that plane,” Roberts said. “You were hoping to see Paul Whelan.”

Griner nodded, saying, “When I walked on and I didn't see him, I was like, ‘OK, maybe I'm early. Maybe he's next. Maybe they are going to bring him next,’” she said of Whelan.

“And when they closed the door, I was like … are you seriously not gonna let this man come home right now?” Griner added, recounting her disappointment.

Since her release, Griner has become an outspoken advocate for Americans wrongfully detained abroad, including Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was detained in Russia in March 2023 and charged with espionage. The U.S. government designated both Whelan and Gershkovich as "wrongfully detained" -- a classification that allows additional resources to be applied to their cases as the U.S. works to secure their release.

Griner vowed in a heartfelt Instagram post on Dec. 16, 2022, where she thanked those who advocated for her release, "to do whatever I can to help” bring home other Americans wrongfully detained abroad.

“President Biden, you brought me home and I know you are committed to bringing Paul Whelan and all Americans home, too,” Griner wrote. “I will use my platform to do whatever I can to help you. I also encourage everyone that played a part in bringing me home to continue their efforts to bring all Americans home. Every family deserves to be whole.”

Tuesday, April 30, 2024 at 9:18AM by Deena Zaru, ABC News Permalink