Brittney Griner, a WNBA All-Star player, is being detained in Russia, as Blavity previously reported. Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury in the United States and the UMMC Ekaterinburg squad in Russia, was stopped at an airport on the outskirts of Moscow, according to the New York Times. The timing of Griner’s arrest, which coincided with rising tensions between the United States and Russia over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has raised questions about the circumstances of the arrest and raised concerns about Griner’s safety. Here are six important facts to know regarding Griner’s incarceration as the scenario unfolds.
Griner’s arrest was first made public on Saturday, when the Russian Federal Customs Service said that an American basketball player had been held at Sheremetyevo Airport. A video of a masked guy being stopped and searched at the airport accompanied the announcement. Despite the fact that the imprisoned player’s identity was not included in the statement and the video did not clearly reveal his face, the American was instantly identified as Griner.
It’s unknown when she was arrested. She was arrested in February, according to the official Russian statement, but multiple reports claim she has been detained for almost three weeks. This assessment appears to be based on a dearth of activity on Griner’s social media accounts; she last tweeted on February 4 and hasn’t posted on Instagram since February 5. There has been no information released regarding where she is being detained or her current condition.
According to the New York Times, Griner was detained by Russian authorities for having vape cartridges containing hashish oil, a cannabis plant derivative, in her luggage. Some states in the United States, including Arizona, where Griner plays, have made such products lawful. However, according to AZ Central, these goods are illegal under both US and Russian federal law, and breaking Russian drug regulations can result in serious penalties.
At least two American women have been arrested in Russian airports in recent years on drug charges that are roughly similar. Audrey Lorber, an American student, was jailed for a month after being caught with 19 grams of marijuana in a St. Petersburg airport. Russia turned down her medical marijuana prescription from the United States and fined her $230. After being caught with seven grams of marijuana at a Moscow airport in 2019, Israeli-American Naama Issachar was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for drug trafficking; she was pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2020, just before then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Russia. Griner’s case is being investigated by Russian officials as “large-scale drug transportation,” which might result in a prison sentence.
Both Russia and Ukraine have become popular destinations for professional basketball players from the United States who wish to play overseas. Several American players, notably Adrienne Godbold and Maurice Creek, were initially stuck in Ukraine at the start of the Russian invasion, as Blavity previously documented.
Meanwhile, Griner’s work as a basketball player in Russia has brought attention to salary inequities between men and women in professional sports in the United States. According to a New York Times report, earnings in the WNBA range from $60,000 to $228,000, which is a quarter of what NBA players earn. Top female basketball players, on the other hand, can earn significantly more money in nations like Russia, where wages can reach seven figures.
Griner’s celebrity status might be used by Russia to extort concessions from the US, or she could be subjected to harsh punishment as retaliation for American sanctions. Evelyn Farkas was a former top official in the United States government. Farkas, of the Department of Defense, believes that Griner might be used as a “high-profile hostage,” and that Russia could demand a prisoner swap or otherwise “blackmail” the US into making some type of policy concession in exchange for her release.
Griner joins a long list of other Americans detained in Russia; according to Yahoo Sports, the US had been in long-running talks with Russia to secure the release of former US marines Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan, who were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms for separate incidents in Russia in 2020. Russia is likely to take advantage of these detainees, as well as any other Americans left in Russia.
Other facets of Griner’s identification, in addition to her nationality and celebrity position, could put her at risk. Raquel Willis, an activist, and writer, wrote on Twitter, “A Black queer woman has been held in Russia for almost a month.” “This is scary as hell.”
The Russian government has been cracking down on the country’s LGBTQ community in recent years. Individual LGBTQ activists are often harassed in the country, and they face threats and violence. Members of the Ukrainian LGBTQ community are concerned that invading Russian soldiers will target them because of Russia’s anti-gay laws and operations.
Meanwhile, in recent years, Russia’s Black citizens and residents have encountered racism and prejudice, but the country has not seen a movement comparable to the Black Lives Matter movement.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro recently told MSNBC that he is “concerned that they’re holding her as a kind of political prisoner.” Fellow Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents Griner’s hometown of Houston, has said that she “will be demanding [Griner’s] release” from Russian custody.
The case has even caught the attention of the United States government. Antony Blinken is the Secretary of State. While he couldn’t go into too much information about her situation, Blinken informed reporters that “we have an embassy team that’s working on the cases of other Americans who are detained in Russia,” adding that “we’re doing everything we can to see to it that their rights are upheld and respected.”