Dennis Rodman, a former professional basketball player and self-styled “basketball ambassador”, has said he will travel to Russia in an attempt to help imprisoned professional women’s player Brittney Griner.
Rodman, whose post-National Basketball Association (NBA) career has been defined by his bizarre relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, told NBC News in an interview he hoped to fly to Russia this week to aid Griner, who was sentenced by a Russian court in early August to nine years in prison on drug charges.
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The United States has said Griner, who was arrested at a Russian airport after authorities found cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage, was wrongfully jailed. The arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine.
“I got permission to go to Russia to help that girl,” Rodman, 61, told the US news network, speaking from a sport apparel convention in Washington, DC. “I’m trying to go this week.”
The statement comes as the US has been trying to negotiate a prisoner swap, seeking the release of Griner and US citizen Paul Whelan in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Asked about Rodman’s reported trip to Russia, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said during a news conference on Monday that the former NBA player “would not be travelling on behalf of the US government”.
“We put forward a substantial proposal to Russia to seek the freedom of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner,” Price told reporters. “We believe that anything other than negotiating further through the established channel is likely to complicate and hinder those release efforts.”
The US State Department urges Americans against travelling to Russia.
Rodman has previously waded into diplomatically fraught prisoner situations, saying his personal appeal to North Korea’s Kim helped lead to the release of missioner Kenneth Bay in 2014. Rodman also travelled to Singapore when Kim met then-US President Donald Trump there in 2018.
He previously met Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014, saying after the meeting that Putin was “actually cool”.
He told NBC he was confident in his understanding of the Russian leader.
“I know Putin too well,” he said.
The case of Griner, a two-time Olympic basketball gold medallist and Women’s NBA champion, has been highlighted by athletes, advocates and legislators, who have continually heaped pressure on the Biden administration to do more to secure her release.
The Kremlin has denied the arrest was politically motivated.