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Her arrest, incarceration and the fight to bring her home has triggered extensive questions The Times asked an array of experts to help answer.
Who is Brittney Griner and what was she doing in Russia?
Griner, who led the Phoenix Mercury to a WNBA championship in 2014, earned seven All-Star appearances and led the league in scoring twice (2017, 2019), is a 6-foot-9 Baylor alum. She is a two-time WNBA defensive player of the year and two-time Olympic gold medalist. She is often referred to as "BG" by friends and teammates. Her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, wrote in an essay for The Times that Griner has a megawatt smile, gives the warmest hugs you’ll ever receive, keeps shoes in the trunk of her to car to give to people experiencing houselessness around Phoenix and does volunteer work with kids who are bullied as she was as a child. Like many of her peers, she chose to spend her WNBA offseason competing in Russia. She played for UMMC Ekaterinburg, an elite club whose salaries far exceed the combined value of her WNBA and endorsement revneue.
Why was Brittney Griner detained by Russia?
On Feb.17, just before the outbreak of war in Ukraine, Griner was en route to join her club in Ekaterinburg after a FIBA team break when Russian officials took Griner into custody at a Moscow airport and charged her with drug smuggling. Authorities say they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil, an illegal substance in Russia, in Griner's luggage. Some national security analysts question whether Griner was actually carrying the vape cartridges, suggesting the charge has yet to be proved. On June 14, Griner’s detention was extended a third time to July 2.
Griner appeared in court Monday and her trial date was set for Friday. Her detention was extended another six months and she was ordered to remain in custody until the trial is completed. It's unclear how long it would take for the court to hand down a verdict. She faces up to 10 years in prison. The Associated Press reported fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in the U.S., acquittals can be overturned.
What does the U.S. government say about Brittney Griner’s detention?
The U.S. State Department classified Griner as “wrongfully detained” on April 29.
“Though she was arrested by a state government abroad, the U.S. government considers that arrest illegitimate,” said Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the United States Air Force Academy whose expertise centers around hostage taking and hostage recovery. “An international detention can be illegitimate for a number of reasons, including the fact that a foreign government might be holding her hostage, which is to say using her for leverage.”
The United States’ basis for this designation is codified in a law passed in 2020 called the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act. The act outlines what constitutes a wrongful detainment. Among the criteria is that the U.S. government expects an American is being used as a hostage or that it has identified issues with a given nation’s criminal justice system.
Gilbert suggests that it wouldn’t be far-fetched to consider Griner, a high-profile American, a hostage. The delay of her hearing is one warning sign. “You don't foot-drag if it’s a normal criminal trial,” Gilbert said.
The other red flag is reports by several state-owned Russian news outlets stating the country wants to engage in a prisoner swap with the U.S. “You don’t exchange prisoners if it’s a normal criminal proceeding,” Gilbert said.
Some critics have suggested Griner put herself in a bad situation and deserves some level of punishment for breaking local laws, but Colas said the focus should be on her classification as wrongfully detained.
“It’s not about guilt or innocence," Colas told The Times. "What matters is that she is being classified as wrongfully detained because she is being used as a political pawn."
State department spokesman Ned Price described Griner's detention as “problematic from top to bottom.” The last time U.S. consular officers in Russia had contact with the basketball star was in May, but Price said earlier this month specialized detainee-rescue teams and U.S. diplomats were “working assiduously behind the scenes” while making “regular contact with Russian authorities.”
“It is precisely why we have characterized Brittney Griner as a wrongful detainee,” Price said. “It is precisely why we are doing everything we can to see and to effect her prompt release from Russian detention.”
What condition is Brittney Griner in?
U.S. officials first saw Griner on March 23, more than a month after she was arrested, and “found her to be in good condition,” according Price.
Griner is able to receive limited letters from family members, friends and teammates that are screened by Russian officials, but she notably has not spoken to her wife, Cherelle, since her detention began. A call was arranged during their anniversary last week, but the U.S. government confirmed to the Associated Press there was a miscommunication about the timing and no one at the U.S. embassy in Moscow was available to connect the call. The call is being rescheduled, but it still falls short of the level of contact her supporters are seeking.
"While sporadic, written communication from her wife, family, friends and global sport community has been a source of comfort for Brittney during her wrongful detainment, going without real time, regular contact with loved ones is inhumane," Colas said in a statement after CNN first reported the correspondence.
Earlier in March, a source close to Griner told ESPN , “I wouldn’t say she’s ‘good,’ but she’s OK.”
How long might Brittney Griner be detained?
As of June, Griner has been detained for four months. Her detention could stretch for a significant period of time.
“State hostage takings last far longer than kidnappings by non-state actors [a criminal, terrorist or rebel group] and it's usually in the territory of months if not years,” Gilbert said.
Paul Whelan, a fellow American wrongfully detained in Russia, has been in custody since 2018. Siamak Namazi has been wrongfully detained in Iran since 2015. Iranian officials arrested his father, Baquer, while he was in Iran to visit his imprisoned son in 2016. The elder Namazi also remains in custody.
The Associated Press reported Monday any swap would apparently require Griner to first be convicted and sentenced, then apply for a presidential pardon, Maria Yarmush, a lawyer specializing in international civil affairs, told Kremlin-funded TV channel RT.
What do Brittney Griner’s supporters want the U.S. to do?
“We implore upon the White House, the Biden administration, Vice President Kamala Harris to do something,” Ogwumike said. “ To show action that shows that she is high priority because that’s not what’s happening. That’s not what we’re seeing. Words can only go so far. We have to feel the action, and every day without BG is every day of a reality we don’t want to be a part of. But we’re going to continue to raise awareness and bring attention to the White House and what needs to be done.”
Griner’s team has enlisted the help of Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor, U.N. ambassador and foreign diplomat who negotiated the April release of Trevor Reed, a former marine who had been detained in Russia since 2019.
Richardson said during an interview with HBO’s “Real Sports” in May that he feels confident in securing Griner’s release. He said he’s had success in hostage negotiations because, while his team works closely with the State Department and White House, they act independently and don’t take orders from them. In service to the victim’s families, Richardson also focuses more on the humanitarian aspect of the negotiations rather than the political implications
“Yes, I’m an American, but they don’t see me as a messenger of the American government. But they see me as somebody they’ve dealt with before, so they deal with me,” Richardson told host Bryant Gumbel. “But it was President Biden that made the ultimate decision for the prisoner exchange — Trevor Reed for [Russian pilot and convicted drug smuggler Konstantin] Yaroshenko.”
Colas said she and Griner’s supporters want Biden to make a deal for the basketball star to return home — “swiftly and safely.” And she’d like to see more people push for that.
“The folks you’ve seen speak out, and you’ll see a lot more, represent a really broad coalition and a real opportunity to recognize the cross section of communities that Brittney connects to that matter and that are collectively so powerful,” Colas said.
Why hasn’t the U.S. done what Brittney Griner’s supporters requested?
Whelan, the other American wrongfully detained in Russia on espionage charges, became a prisoner before officials arrested Reed in 2019. Reed’s release before Whelan’s indicates that hostage negotiations aren’t linear and depend on each individual case.
Reed had health issues, which may have had a significant influence on Richardson’s negotiations. Whether Griner or Whelan will return first is uncertain.
Griner’s high profile might complicate her case. Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” who has been imprisoned in the U.S. since 2008 reportedly may be the person Russian officials want released in exchange for the basketball star.
U.S. officials charged Bout with smuggling military-grade weapons to rebels in Africa and abroad, and a federal judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison. Deemed by a longtime DEA agent as “one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth,” Bout made $50 million supplying arms to the Taliban, according to the U.S. treasury department.
Russia has bargained for his release since his 2012 conviction, but the U.S. hasn’t budged. Bout’s value to Russia lies in his military intelligence connections and his service to Russia’s foreign policy interest under Vladimir Putin, according to the report from Yahoo Sports.
Some, including the federal judge who presided over his case, suggested it a worthy trade.
While the U.S. has a history of trading prisoners to get American citizens released from wrongful detention, it is cautious about those negotiations, in part, to avoid putting American citizens traveling abroad in danger of being detained and held for ransom.
If Brittney Griner were a male star athlete, would she be home?
Griner is a Black, gender non-conforming, lesbian woman. Supporters have suggested her marginalized identities explain why she received muted media coverage upon her arrest and why the government has not moved to free her.
Coverage of Griner’s detainment was initially hushed to prioritize her well-being and to make her less alluring to Russian officials hoping to utilize her celebrity as leverage.
“It was on the advice of the State Department and many, many experts to have it be muted early and that was really just out of respect for BG’s safety,” Colas said.
But she added: “If Brittney had been an A-level male celebrity or athlete, we would not have been able to stay at all muted. It would have spun wildly big very quickly.”
Male athletes and white victims of crime tend to receive more coverage, but Griner’s identities might have less direct influence on her ability to escape from a legal standpoint and more impact on whether the public and top officials will rally behind her enough to pressure the U.S. government to act.
“At the end of the day, the process to bring home a wrongful detainee is painstaking, behind-the-scenes negotiations,” Gilbert said. “More American sympathy and protest and attention to her case is not going to convince the Russian government that they should let her go, but more attention and sympathy for her case might put pressure on the White House that they can’t let up.”
Colas suggests rallying behind Griner would start new conversations about diversity and identity, in addition to bringing her home.
“The challenges that BG represents in her very intersectional identity is also an opportunity,” Colas said. “Maybe we’ll get to look back and say this was a unifying moment for a broad cross section of intersectional diverse communities and say this person matters to all of us."
What have Brittney Griner’s supporters done to try to help her?
Once the U.S. government officially classified Griner as wrongfully detained, Colas and her team focused on a public and private strategy for rallying support for bringing the star home. Griner's WNBA teammates and numerous NBA players, including Lakers star LeBron James, have joined celebrities and musicians wearing clothing and posting messages in support of Griner.
Her supporters, including her wife, have done extensive local and national media interviews and a wide range of groups have endorsed their efforts. The WNBA and NBA both have repeatedly called for Griner's release, adding her initials to WNBA courts and making her an honorary all-star to call further attention to her detention.
In a letter sent to the White House on Wednesday, 44 organizations — including the National Organization for Women, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Urban League — called for Biden to arrange a deal for Griner's release.
On Friday, the House passed Rep. Greg Stanton’s resolution calling on the Russian government to immediately release Griner and supporting U.S. government efforts to secure her release.
In addition to letters of support from high-profile figures, clothing and pins featuring "We are BG" that keep Griner in the spotlight and social media campaigns, supporters started a petition to help demonstrate how many people want to see Griner released.
The strategy is comparable to past efforts to get wrongfully incarcerated individuals released from U.S. prisons and swing support in favor of Raphael Warnock's successful run for U.S. Senate in Georgia.
The petition calling for Griner's release, which has more than 275,000 signatures, can be found at WeAreBG.org. The website also features information about Griner's case to help explain what it means to be wrongfully detained.
“People need to be aware of this. Do you want your child, your sister, your friend, your family taken in as a political pawn? Forget being a celebrity. Most of the people are normal people. Normal people without resources and teams and advisers,” Colas said. “This should matter because most wrongful detainees are not celebrities and it could happen to anyone if we don't act and prioritize all wrongfully detained Americans."
Colas said the goal is to accumulate at least half a million signatures on the petition and send it to the White House to illustrate the strong support for bringing Griner home.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.