Brittney Griner, a WNBA champion with the Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist with the US women’s national basketball team, was detained in Russia on February 17, a week before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Griner, one of the best women’s basketball players in the world, had been in Russia to compete for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a professional Russian women’s basketball team. Griner has played for UMMC Yekaterinburg for the past several years during the WNBA off-season. Competing for international teams during the WNBA’s off-season is common for players, as it provides the chance to earn extra money. About 70 WNBA players decided to play with high-paying international teams instead of resting during the off-season this year, with more than a dozen in Russia and Ukraine before the war broke out.
The Russian Federal Customs Service officials said they detained Griner after a sniffer dog had prompted them to search Griner’s carry-on luggage and they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil (a marijuana concentrate that has a high concentration of the psychoactive chemical THC). Griner was then charged with attempting to smuggle narcotics into Russia: a criminal charge carrying a 10-year maximum sentence.
On May 3, US State Department officials said Griner had been “wrongfully detained” and that, by American law, the designation obliges the Secretary of State to transfer responsibility for the case to the Office of the Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs to secure her release and bring her home.
Griner’s trial began on July 1. At trial, Griner’s lawyers argued that she had a medical prescription for the hashish oil to treat pain from injuries and mistakenly carried the drug into Russia. Ultimately, however, on August 4, Griner was found guilty and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony.
Griner appealed, but the conviction and sentencing were upheld in late October. Griner’s lawyers said before the appeal hearing that she did “not expect any miracles to happen,” but hoped the three-judge panel would reduce her sentence, which it, unfortunately, did not.
The American basketball star has endured months in a Russian prison and is now being transferred to an undisclosed prison in Russia’s vast and opaque penal colony system, where she is due to serve the remainder of a nine-year drug smuggling sentence. Griner faces a bleak life in a Russian penal colony as Russia’s penal colonies are often grim, cramped facilities. Russian penal colonies are known for their lack of hygiene and access to medical care, with inmates often required to perform manual labor.
Griner’s representatives said they don’t know where she is or what her condition is. Russia has “unfortunately followed past practice” and did not notify the US ahead of moving Griner, a senior US State Department official said. US diplomats have asked Russia for information on Griner, but Russia has not provided any answers. The official said: “We are communicating very clearly to the Russians requesting information on her current location as well as her destination in addition to the message that we expect consistent with their obligations, including under the Vienna Convention, to have a consistent consular access to Brittney Griner.”
Griner’s best hope for a quick return to the US is that the Biden administration finds a way to strike a deal with Russia and swap her for a high-profile Russian who is being held by the US. The Kremlin appears interested in linking the fate of Griner to that of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death” who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans. Diplomats from both the US and Russia have said that their governments were ready to negotiate for the release of both the basketball star and former US Marine Paul N. Whelan, another American imprisoned in Russia, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison after he was convicted of espionage – charges he denies.
In a statement last Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said: “As we work to secure Brittney Griner’s release, we expect Russian authorities to provide our Embassy officials with regular access to all US citizens detained in Russia, including Brittney, as is their obligation. Ensuring the health and welfare of US citizen detainees in Russia is a priority, and we will continue to press for fair and transparent treatment for them all.”