Anxiety about Brittney Griner’s freedom mounts amid Russia-Ukraine conflict
Anxiety is mounting over the status of WNBA star Brittney Griner’s freedom after reports surfaced last week that she had been detained in a Russian airport on charges of possession of hashish oil.
Advocates, U.S. lawmakers and those who know Griner personally are worried that the two-time Olympic gold medalist faces physical danger in Russia, and that Griner will face severe legal consequences as a political pawn in the Kremlin’s war with Ukraine.
During an interview with The Hill, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat representing Griner’s home state of Texas, said that her concern was for “her family and her privacy.”
“But under the circumstances, I’m obviously concerned and believe the actions of the [Russian] Federal Customs officers was unnecessary. And it was, in my perspective, targeted and purposeful.”
“I don’t underestimate anything that Russia would do. With that in mind, I’ve got to keep fighting on all aspects of the front to ensure her safety,” she said.
The New York Times first reported last Saturday that Griner was detained by the Russian Federal Customs Service at the Sheremetyevo Airport after a canine unit detected that she had vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage.
An investigation by the customs service was opened into allegations of large-scale transportation of drugs, a charge that carries with it a 10-year prison sentence.
Following news reports, Russian state media released a mug shot of Griner at a Russian police station where the basketball player stood holding a piece of paper with her name written on it.
Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN Friday that Griner had been detained on Feb. 17, less than 10 days before Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a full-scale invasion into Ukraine.
Since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, the United States and its Western allies have imposed crippling economic sanctions on Russia, including sanctions on Putin himself, Russian oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin, Russian banks and a ban on the country’s oil imports.
These sanctions have only increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia in a volatile situation that experts and lawmakers say poses specific concerns about Griner’s case.
Allred said that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow has not had contact with Griner since she was taken into custody, a fact that he called “extremely unusual” in cases where Americans have been detained.
“And so that’s extremely unusual and extremely concerning,” Allred said. “The fact that we’ve not had official government contact with her to help her through this process. She is in touch with her Russian lawyer who is helping us understand her situation and working through the legal process.”
Tom Firestone, a former resident legal advisor at the U.S. embassy in Moscow said that even without the tense political backdrop, Griner’s case is “quite serious.”
“We could have good relations with Russia and being arrested, bringing in a narcotic substance would be a very, very serious matter,” Firestone told The Hill.
The former Department of Justice employee added that in the current political climate, the embassy in Moscow has a depleted staff.
“That’s bad on various levels, but what it means is that she will have a harder time getting attention from the consular officer at the embassy in Moscow just because they are so — they’re stretched so thin.”
Allred told CNN that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow has requested consular access to Griner, which has not been granted for three weeks.
Firestone said that a strained relationship between the U.S. and Moscow could also provide roadblocks in negotiations if the countries wanted to engage in a prisoner exchange.
Another concern for Griner is the way her identity as a Black, LGBT American will affect her treatment in Russian custody.
In 2013, Putin signed a law in Russia that banned the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors, according to the Council for Global Equality.
David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, noted that these “propaganda” laws demonstrate Russia’s “very public history” of anti-LGBT sentiment. “All those things make her prone to particular attack,” he added.
The worst-case scenario, Johns fears, will be that Griner doesn’t return home.
“We live in a world where that’s possible,” Johns said, when asked if there’s a fear Griner won’t be released. “I mean, all of those things are possibilities … having watched Russia slow-walk into a war right before our eyes.”
Amid the anxiety and speculation, a sparse amount of information has been shared by Griner’s family and close contacts.
Following the news of her detainment, Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, thanked the public for their support in an Instagram post, but asked for “privacy” as efforts continue to bring her spouse home safely.
The basketball player’s agent Lindsay Colas said that she was “aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia.”
“As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”
A spokesperson for the Phoenix Mercury, where Griner has played for most of her professional WNBA career, sounded a similar note.
A spokesperson for the State Department referred The Hill to a previous statement made by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in which the top diplomat said that the U.S. will “provide every possible assistance” to citizens held in foreign countries.
Firestone said he suspects the reason family and friends are being quiet is because they believe that the best way to resolve the issue is through the criminal justice system.
“I assume … she and her family and the lawyers have decided just to challenge through the legal system rather than try to make this into a political case. Which given the nature of the current political situation is probably a wise decision on their part.”
Jackson Lee said that Griner’s detention and the picture that was released at the Russian police station was “vile and vicious,” but she hoped that there would be a “legal remedy.”
“I certainly rely upon that process, but my role is to ensure that the federal government is squarely aware, engaged and concerned about her safety and security, as there are others who have been harmed by made pawns even before the war.”
The Texas Democrat said that she wasn’t going to “let funny business” take off on Griner and that she mentioned Griner’s name during a meeting with President Biden on Monday.
“She is an American and she’s coming home,” she added.
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