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Brittney Griner urges the return of U.S. detainees abroad at NAACP Image Awards

Cherelle Griner, on the left, and Brittney Griner, on the right, speak onstage during the 54th NAACP Image Awards in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday.
Amy Sussman
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Cherelle Griner, on the left, and Brittney Griner, on the right, speak onstage during the 54th NAACP Image Awards in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday.

In one of her first public appearances since being released from Russian prison, WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner spoke at the 54th NAACP Image Awards on Saturday, thanking people for their support and calling for the return of Americans still detained abroad.

"It feels so good to be here, especially with my beautiful, amazing wife and with all of y'all here today. I want to thank everyone," Griner said on stage. "Let's keep fighting to bring home every American still detained overseas."

Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, were welcomed onto the stage by award ceremony host and actress Queen Latifah, who applauded the couple for their resilience.

"As we gather here tonight in the spirit of overcoming adversity, I want to take this moment to recognize someone who has done just that," Queen Latifah said.

On average, 34 Americans are wrongfully detained by foreign governments each year — that number is nearly seven times greater than the average compared to a decade ago, according to a study by the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, a group that advocates for the release of Americans who are held hostage or wrongfully detained.

According to the organization, there are at least 60 Americans who are currently held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad. A majority of those detained are in Iran, China, Venezuela, Syria and Russia.

While nearly two thirds of people who are wrongfully detained are eventually released, rescued or escape, the report found that nearly a third are still apprehended and nearly half of those currently detained have been held for more than four years.

Wrongful detention was once a practice primarily carried out by terrorist organizations or other militant groups. But over the years, it has increasingly become a tool of adversarial governments, the study said.

Last February, Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, traveled to Moscow to play offseason in a Russian basketball league. Griner was detained on drug charges upon arrival after customs officials found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner has said the oil was legally prescribed to address chronic pain issues, and that any violation of Russian law was unintentional.

After almost 10 months of tense negotiations between the U.S. and Russia, Griner landed on American soil on Dec. 8 as part of a prisoner swap. In exchange for Griner's release, the U.S. handed over the convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

On the day of Griner's return, President Biden said Griner was in "good spirits," but needed time to heal from the traumatic experience of being wrongfully detained.

At a press conference, Biden recalled a previous letter from Griner back in July while she was still in Russian prison, which struck a similar note to her plea Saturday at the awards ceremony.

Biden said, "She requested a simple, quote, 'Please don't forget about me and the other American detainees.'"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.