What we know about Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia

After nearly five months in custody in Russia, WNBA star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges on July 7. She faces up to 10 years in a penal colony if she is officially convicted and sentenced.

By pleading guilty, Ms Griner may have helped speed the conclusion of her case, potentially paving the way for a deal with the United States that could free her. As hearings continued in July, her lawyers argued that she had no intention of smuggling narcotics into Russia and that her doctor had recommended the use of cannabis to treat pain from the injuries.

Ms Griner, 31, who has played for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury since 2013, was arrested on February 17 after Russian authorities accused her of having hash oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow . Ms Griner had traveled to Russia to compete for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a professional women’s basketball team.

His detention first became public on March 5. While fans immediately rallied around Ms Griner on social media, her family and friends initially remained silent about the situation for fear drawing attention to her would politicize the matter. The United States and Russia have long had a strained relationship, and a week after Ms Griner’s arrest, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Russia’s Federal Customs Service says a sniffer dog tricked it into searching the hand luggage of an American basketball player at an airport near Moscow and found vaping cartridges containing oil of hashish. A state-owned Russian news agency later identified the player as Brittney Griner.

Hash oil is a marijuana concentrate that has a high concentration of THC, a psychoactive chemical, and is commonly sold in cartridges used in vape pens. Russia’s Federal Customs Service said customs officers noticed vapes after scanning the traveller’s bag.

The Customs Service said a criminal case had been opened for large-scale transport of drugs, a charge that carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

He posted video of a traveler who appeared to be Ms Griner going through airport security with a wheeled suitcase and a small backpack, followed by footage of someone examining a package that appeared to be from the traveler’s suitcase.

Ms. Griner played for Russian team UMMC Yekaterinburg for several years during the WNBA offseason. Her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, wrote in the Los Angeles Times in April that Ms Griner had connected in Moscow on her way to Yekaterinburg from the United States when she was arrested.

Many American players compete with high-paying Russian teams: About 70 WNBA players decided to play with international teams instead of resting this year’s offseason, including more than a dozen in Russia and Ukraine. A WNBA spokeswoman said all others except Ms Griner left Russia and Ukraine on March 5 as the war in Ukraine was ongoing.

The financial incentives are compelling. WNBA players earn a fraction of what their male counterparts in the NBA do. The maximum salary in 2022 for WNBA players is $228,094, while top NBA players are paid tens of millions of dollars.

Mrs. Kagawa Colas has criticized the gender pay gap in American basketball in connection with the detention of Ms. Griner.

“While his detention has risen to the top of the news for its geopolitical relevance,” Ms. Kagawa Colas wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “at the bottom lies a history of gender wage disparity here in the United States.”

Ms. Griner is one of the best basketball players in the world. She won a WNBA championship with the Mercury in 2014 and won two Olympic gold medals with the United States women’s national basketball team.

It remains unclear whether Russia targeted Ms Griner for leverage against the United States, which led a widespread effort to impose harsh sanctions on Russia and its elite during the war in Ukraine.

On May 3, the State Department said Ms Griner had been wrongfully detained, but did not explain why it made the decision. Under US law, the designation requires the Secretary of State to transfer responsibility for the case to the Office of the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

US officials have repeatedly accused Moscow of detaining US citizens under dubious pretexts.

“This follows a pattern of Russia wrongfully detaining and imprisoning American citizens,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas, wrote on Twitter on March 5, citing the case of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was sentenced by a Russian court to nine years in prison in 2020 for assaulting police officers whom his family and supporters called fraudulent.

On the same day, the State Department issued an updated advisory urging US citizens to leave Russia immediately given the “potential for harassment of US citizens by Russian government security officials”.

The release of Trevor Reed, a former US Marine, in a prisoner exchange with Russia on April 27 drew attention to the cases of other Americans still being held in Russia, including Ms Griner.

In a briefing to reporters on April 28, US officials said the administration remained focused on freeing Ms Griner.

Cherelle Griner posted on Instagram that her heart was “overflowing with joy for the Reed family.”

“I know the pain of having a loved one detained in a foreign country,” she added.

Experts said Mr Reed’s release was an encouraging sign that diplomatic efforts could still yield results despite the current level of hostility between Washington and Moscow.

The Kremlin appears interested in linking Ms Griner’s fate to that of Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer known as the Death Dealer who is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans. In this scenario, Moscow would seek to strike a deal with the Biden administration that would release both Ms. Griner and Mr. Bout.

Such a deal would create considerable hurdles for the Biden administration: the wide disparity between the cases means that the president would have a hard time justifying the release of a villainous figure like Mr. Bout, and it would risk creating an incentive to arrest or abduction of Americans abroad.

Lara Jacques and Michael Crowley contributed report.

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