TBrittney Griner (31) was detained in Russia for over four months. Her criminal case against her, a 31-year old WNBA champion, and Olympic gold-medalist, started on July 1. For allegedly transporting and smuggling cannabis products, she could spend up to 10 year in prison. Experts warn that her fair trial is unlikely and Russian authorities use her as an negotiating chip in the ongoing invasion against Ukraine.
Here’s what you need to know.
Griner was taken into custody and held in February
On Feb. 17, Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was taken into custody at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow after her arrival to play in the off-season with UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian women’s basketball team where Griner has been a star for the past seven years. Airport authorities allegedly found four vape cartridges containing hash oil, a concentrated form of cannabis that is illegal in Russia, in Griner’s luggage. Russian Federal Customs Service claimed that customs officials searched Griner’s luggage after her airport security dog alerted them. Griner was accused of violating Article 229.1 of Russia’s Criminal Code, which criminalizes illegal drug trafficking.
Griner’s detention occurred one week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it wasn’t until March 5 that news outlets began reporting about the detention of an unnamed American basketball player.
Shortly after Griner was detained, Russian customs officers released footage from the airport. This shows them conducting a search for customs. A source within law enforcement said to TASS (the Russian news agency) later in the day.
On March 17, TASS reported that Griner’s detainment would be extended for more than two months, until May 19, after a court petition to investigate the charges had been approved. A State Department representative stated that American consular representatives were still not able to meet Griner.
On March 23, U.S. officials announced that Griner had received permission to meet with a representative from the American Embassy. During a press conference, spokesman Ned Price said Griner was “doing as well as can be expected under these very difficult circumstances.”
On April 11 WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert said that the league was working with Griner’s legal team, her agent, and the U.S. government to get Griner home as quickly as possible.
“This is an unimaginable situation for BG to be in. She continues to have our full support,” Englebert said, referencing Griner by her initials. “We know she’s safe, but we want to get her home so it’s a really complex situation.”
About three weeks later on May 3, the WNBA released a statement that Griner’s initials and jersey number would be featured on each court this season and that the league granted both roster and salary cap relief for Phoenix Mercury to hire a temporary replacement player to fill Griner’s spot.
On the same day, the State Department said in a statement that Griner had been “wrongfully detained” by the Russian government, adding that “the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the U.S government.” The agency said that a new team within the agency would begin overseeing her case. Griner’s request to be placed under house arrest was turned down on May 13th. Her detention was then extended for another 30 days. According to the U.S. Embassy, Griner’s requests for her sighting were denied repeatedly throughout the month.
On June 14, Griner’s pretrial detention was extended once more until July 2. Then, at Griner’s June 27 closed-door preliminary hearing, the court set a trial start date for July 1 and extended her detention until Dec. 20 to accommodate the length of the trial.
Public outcry over Griner’s detention
Advocacy groups, Griner’s teammates and basketball fans alike have spent the last several months writing petitions, organizing protests and pleading with legislators to negotiate with Russian officials for Griner’s safe return home. Protests ensued in Phoenix, where Griner’s WNBA team is based. Members of the WNBA team met with the State Department in early June to discuss what could be done about Griner’s case.
“There is a lot involved in getting her back home and safe, they’re working relentlessly,” Mercury star Diana Taurasi said in a statement after the meeting. “We’re here to do whatever we can to amplify and keep BG at the forefront, which is more important than any basketball game and anything else that’s going on in our lives. We want BG to come home as soon as possible, it’s number one on our list.”
Tim Bradley, an ex-FBI agent said that Russians of color and LGBTQ+ persons are at greater risk. “The Russian government has a very closed view towards the LGBTQ community. That could have made her a more obvious target for them,” Bradley said.
On May 17, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, expressed on Twitter that Griner’s detention is a human rights violation and that she was being used by Russia for diplomatic leverage.
“International law requires that Russia provide consular access to #BrittneyGrinerThis access was denied to Brittney three times. This proves Brittney is being used as a political bargaining chip,” Colas wrote.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, has also said Griner is a “political pawn.” Cherelle has made public requests for President Biden to intervene in Griner’s release, and she’s shared scorn over the American government’s handling of the case. A petition calling for Griner’s release on change.org has nearly 299,000 signatures as of Friday.
On March 5, the U.S. State Department issued a “do not travel” advisory for Russia in light of the invasion of Ukraine, warning that Americans faced potential harassment from Russian security officials and that the U.S. Embassy in Moscow could only offer limited assistance to Americans there.
Despite public outcry over Griner’s case, relatively few political figures have weighed in. The New York interviewed experts and government analysts as well as legal professionals. Times, limiting statements and attention on the case could be helpful for Griner’s freedom because of the widely-held belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin is staunchly against caving to Western demands, especially since global outrage ensued over the invasion of Ukraine.
Political commentators have largely said that ongoing geopolitical tension between Russia and the West—including sanctions and military support for Ukraine—have weakened Griner’s possibility of release.
Bradley also told TIME that Griner’s arrest was “right out of the Russian playbook.” “I have to believe that she was targeted, based on the pending invasion of Ukraine. The Russian government has a long history of wrongfully detaining U.S. citizens,” he said. “It just doesn’t pass the smell test… It’s not shocking that the Russian government would do this.”
Russian news outlets and political pundits have circulated the idea of a prisoner swap as a possible solution for Griner’s release, after a successful swap earlier this year that brought a detained former U.S. Marine home from Russia. Russian news media have mentioned Viktor Bout as a potential partner in Griner’s exchange. He is an arms dealer from around the world. However, criticism has emerged over the stark differences in the two prisoners’ alleged crimes. This swap is also feared by security experts as it could lead to future hostage taking.
Griner’s trial began July 1, but there’s no information about what type of evidence Russian prosecutors will bring against Griner.
The New Yorker was informed by lawyers Times that a conviction is very likely because “there’s no real idea or expectation that the defendant could be innocent” when they go to trial in Russia, all of the evidence used in a case comes from the prosecution, and there is no right to trial by jury. The likelihood of a conviction is higher for cases that reach trial. Kimberly St. Julian – Varnon is a doctoral student at Penn State’s history department. TimesGriner may be able to win her freedom through prisoner exchange or a lesser conviction.
As Griner’s trial began, U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Moscow Elizabeth Rood said that Griner told her she was “keeping the faith.”
Read More From Time