EXPLAINER: WNBA star Brittney Griner's detention in Russia
As WNBA star and two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner approaches the three-month mark of her detention in Russia, she has no clear prospect of release.
The Phoenix Mercury All-Star center may as early as Friday face a Moscow court hearing, which is likely to extend her pre-trial detention. It doesn’t help that she was arrested in Moscow, at the lowest point of U.S.-Russian relations in decades.
Here is a look at Griner’s predicament, and the efforts to secure her release.
WHAT IS THIS NEXT LEGAL STEP?
Griner was detained Feb. 17 and a hearing in a Russian court could come as early as Friday, or anytime before May 19 when her detention period is scheduled to end. The court will likely extend her pre-trial detention. No trial date has been set.
May 19 is the day Griner’s detention period is scheduled to end, not a court or trial date. Courts in Russia routinely extend pre-trial detention, and suspects can spend years in jail awaiting trial.
The Biden administration says Griner, 31, is being wrongfully detained. The WNBA and U.S. officials have worked toward her release, without visible progress.
Griner was detained at the Moscow airport after vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis were allegedly found in her luggage, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
HOW IS GRINER’S CASE VIEWED IN RUSSIA?
The Russians have described Griner’s case as a criminal offense without making any political associations.
But it comes amid Moscow’s war in Ukraine that has brought U.S.-Russian relations to the lowest level since the Cold War.
Despite the strain, Russia and the United States carried out an unexpected prisoner exchange last month – trading ex-marine Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal sentence for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. While the U.S. does not typically embrace such exchanges, it made the deal in part because Yaroshenko had already served a long portion of his prison sentence.
The Russians may consider Griner a potential part of another such exchange.
WHAT IS THE U.S. GOVERNMENT DOING?
The State Department last week said it now regards Griner as wrongfully detained, a change in classification that suggests the U.S. government will be more active in trying to secure her release even while the legal case plays out. The status change places her case under the purview of the department’s Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, which is responsible for negotiating for the release of hostages and Americans considered wrongfully detained.
Also working on the case now is a center led by Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who helped the release of multiple hostages and detainees, including Reed.
It’s not entirely clear why the U.S. government, which for weeks had been more circumspect in its approach, reclassified Griner as a wrongful detainee. But under federal law, there are a number of factors that go into such a characterization, including if the detention is based on being an American or if the detainee has been denied due process.
U.S. State Dept. spokesman Ned Price has confirmed that U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan had a meeting with Russian counterparts but would not say whether Griner was discussed or talk any further about her case.
WHAT ARE THE WNBA AND MERCURY DOING?
Griner will be paid her full salary of nearly $228,000 even though she is being detained.
The WNBA also is acknowledging Griner’s absence with a decal on the home floor of all 12 teams that has her initials and No. 42. The WNBA approved giving the Mercury both roster and salary cap relief so they can carry a replacement player until Griner returns home. Phoenix wore shirts before their opening game last week saying “We are BG”.
The WNBA and Mercury were at first reticent to say anything in fear of exacerbating Griner’s situation, but have become more vocal as her detention continues. Several players have spoken out, including Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart who has tweeted daily about Griner.
“BG is on my mind every day,” Stewart recently said. “You have these moments where you just can’t believe that she’s still in Russia, wrongfully detained. Hoping we get her home. The WNBA isn’t the WNBA without BG.”