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Biden faces pressure to help get WNBA star Brittney Griner released from Russian jail

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Pressure is mounting on the Biden administration to bring Brittney Griner home. The WNBA star remains jailed in Russia on drug charges. She was taken into custody in February. Now dozens of civil and human rights groups have written a letter to Biden urging action. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The letter is addressed to President Biden and Vice President Harris and signed by organizations including Human Rights Campaign, the National Organization for Women and National LGBTQ Task Force. The Inclusion Playbook is another one of the more than 40 groups that signed on. It also helped organize the effort. Inclusion Playbook president Ashland Johnson hopes the letter conveys a sense of urgency about Brittney Griner's situation.

ASHLAND JOHNSON: She has been detained for 126 days, and it's time to do something.

GOLDMAN: The letter notes, by classifying Griner as wrongfully detained, the U.S. government has acknowledged she's essentially a political pawn. Therefore, Johnson says, the administration could make a deal, possibly similar to the prisoner exchange in April that freed former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed. He'd been jailed in Russia since 2020.

JOHNSON: The administration has it within their power to make a swap, and that's something that we hope is a deal that's on the table.

GOLDMAN: Those close to Griner have been frustrated, saying efforts to free her have been too slow. Griner's wife, Cherelle, told The New York Times the administration, quote, "is debating whether they should start negotiating. They're wasting time for my wife's life." A National Security Council spokesperson said in a statement, the U.S. government continues to work aggressively, using every available means to bring Griner home. Russian authorities continue their hard line on Griner, who they say brought into the country vape cartridges containing hashish. This week on NBC, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, refuted the claim that Griner is a hostage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DMITRY PESKOV: I would strongly disagree with that. We cannot call her a hostage. She violated Russian law, and now she is being prosecuted.

GOLDMAN: Griner's lawyer in Russia tells NPR Griner is scheduled to have a preliminary hearing in her case this coming Monday. In the meantime, Ashland Johnson says public efforts will continue to pressure the administration into making a deal because, she says, those efforts matter.

JOHNSON: Anything and everything we can do to keep that in the forefront of the administration's mind is extremely important.

GOLDMAN: Because the moment we forget, she says, is the moment Brittney Griner loses hope. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF $HUN SONG, "LEARNED MENTALITIES (TAO)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.