The war in Ukraine has all but sundered relations between the U.S. and Russia, and in that geopolitical atmosphere there is growing concern over the extended detention of Brittney Griner. With news of atrocities perpetrated in Ukraine and President Biden’s call for a war crimes investigation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Griner’s status is now particularly fraught.
As a Black lesbian who is outspoken as an activist for LGBTQ youth, Griner’s sexual orientation has been mocked on Russian state TV, making her more of a target. In 2013, Russia passed a nationwide “Don’t Say Gay” law that prohibits distributing “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. And prior to the Sochi Olympics, Putin famously told gay athletes to stay out of Russia.
It’s been at least 50 days since seven-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Griner was detained at Sheremetyevo International Airport outside Moscow. Griner is alleged by Russian Federal Customs Service (FCS) to have been smuggling drugs in the form of hashish oil vape pens–“large-scale transportation of drugs” — an accusation that members of Congress and former detainees alike find suspect.
Drug smuggling, as opposed to simple possession — which would have resulted in a simple fine and possible deportation — is a criminal offense with a lengthy prison sentence.
On February 28, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to U.S. citizens: “Russian security services have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence.”
Griner had already been detained for at least two weeks when the State Dept. issued that warning.
Griner, who plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, had arrived in Moscow to play with the Russian Premier League. Griner has been working in Russia since 2015 during the WNBA off-season, playing for the UMMC Ekaterinburg team, which she has led to victory five times. Given how many years she has worked in Russia, Griner is quite familiar with Russia’s strict narcotics laws which could put her in prison for a decade. As supporters have noted, as a Black woman who is 6’9″ with waist-length braids, Griner stands out in an airport. She would be an easy target.
As tension builds between the U.S. and Russia, questions have been raised about whether Griner is being held in what is called “hostage diplomacy” — a famous person detained as a bargaining chip.
The Washington Post reported in November 2021, prior to Griner’s detention, that wrongful arrests and hostage taking of U.S. citizens by foreign governments manipulate those detained. Griner could be being used to leverage negotiations in this strained period.
Former WNBA MVP and four-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Leslie said in an interview April 1 that she and other WNBA players had been told not to talk about Griner’s detention.
“What we were told, and again this is all sort of passed along through hearsay, but what we were told was to not make a big fuss about it so that they could not use her as a pawn, so to speak, in this situation, in the war,” Leslie said in the interview. “To make it like it’s not that important or don’t make it where we’re like, ‘Free Brittney,’ and we start this campaign and then it becomes something that they can use.”
But that strategy is now being questioned as details about Griner — particularly where she is being held and what the status of her mental and physical health are — remain elusive.
In an interview with CNN, Nick Daniloff, an American journalist detained in Russia previously, said of Griner’s detention, “The Russians seized her and she’s incommunicado… It’s very possible that she’s being held in the sort of a prison where I was taken — an isolation prison.”
Daniloff told CNN he believed his cellmate informed authorities about his actions. He said the same could be true about Griner.
PGN requested specific information from the U.S. State Department: How is Griner’s health? Does she have full consular access now? Can you comment on where she is being held? Does she have U.S. representation? Can you comment on efforts for her release? Has Ambassador Sullivan or any other State Dept. representative seen her?
The State Dept. Press Office referred PGN to State Dept. spokesperson Ned Price’s latest comments on Griner.
Griner had no consular access for at least five weeks, until March 23. Price said, with regard to this point about Griner’s detention, “every time an American citizen is detained overseas, it is a priority for our Bureau of Consular Affairs, for our consular office within each embassy we have around the world, to provide appropriate consular assistance.”
Price said Ambassador John Sullivan met with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in person in Moscow. Price said Sullivan “delivered a message of his own: We expect regular, consistent consular access to American citizens who are detained in Russia, including those who are detained in pretrial detention” as Griner has been.
Price said of this consular access for Griner that Sullivan emphasized, “This is not only an ask, it is also a responsibility. It is an obligation that Russia has, based on the Vienna Convention, based on our bilateral consular agreement regarding access to detainees.”
This demand by Sullivan, Price said, resulted in a response on Griner. He said, “We were subsequently afforded access to Brittney Griner. Without going into details, I will say there has been limited additional progress in terms of other detained Americans. But again, our ask and our request and our demand, consistent with Russia’s own obligations, is that this not be one-off, that consular access to Americans who are detained in Russia, including those in pretrial detention, be regular and be consistent, as it is called for under these documents.”
Price said, “The head of our consular section in Moscow was afforded a visit. It was an opportunity for him to do a welfare check. We came away with the impression that she is doing as well as could possibly be expected under these very difficult circumstances.”
What PGN could not obtain clarification on was how recent this “welfare check” was. On March 23, PGN received the following statement from Price, “Within the past couple hours, an official from our embassy has been granted consular access to Brittney Griner. We were able to check on her condition. We will continue to work very closely with her legal team, with her broader network to see to it that she’s treated fairly. That is a message that we will continue to convey in no uncertain terms to the Russian federation.”
Price also said, “There’s only so much I can say, but what I can say is that our official found Brittney Griner to be in good condition, and we will continue to do everything we can to see to it that she is treated fairly throughout this ordeal.”
PGN submitted a second request for further specifics on April 6, but were referred again to the statement sent on April 5, which means the State Dept. is not releasing — or does not have — information on Griner’s current status.
PGN contacted the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service for comment but had not received a reply at press time.
The WNBA regular season begins May 6 and Griner’s WNBA teammates voiced their concern to The Washington Post on April 2, with Kelsey Plum, who won Olympic gold with Griner saying, “It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
Russia’s state-sponsored TASS news outlet announced that Griner’s detention had been extended to May 19.