By MARK LORENZANA
The detention in Russia of Brittney Griner — the star center who plays for the Phoenix Mercury in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) — will be extended yet again, Russian news agency TASS reported on Tuesday, June 14.
Griner was taken into Russian custody at the Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow on Feb. 17 for allegedly carrying, in her luggage, vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is illegal to possess in Russia. She has now been detained for 120 days.
According to the TASS report, Griner will be held at least until July 2, for her next scheduled hearing. However, U.S. officials have already said that they are not considering the Russian legal proceedings to be legitimate, but rather a negotiation tactic. Sources close to Griner believe the Russian courts will keep extending her detention until a deal is reached with the U.S. government for her release.
“Hostage diplomacy cases rely on the pretense of law. The Russians won’t ever say ‘we’re holding Brittney Griner hostage,’ but by repeatedly postponing her trial, they’re communicating their intentions,” Danielle Gilbert, assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy told ESPN. “Dragging out her detention, missing court deadlines — these are key indicators that we should question the legitimacy of her arrest, precisely why the United States classified it as a wrongful detention.”
A previous TASS report in May said that there had been rumors that Griner would potentially be involved in a detainee swap involving Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is in the middle of a 25-year sentence in U.S. federal prison after he was convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens relating to the support of a Colombian terrorist organization.
Back when this news was floated by TASS, former U.S. intel officer Rebekah Koffler, in an interview with Fox News, said that a prisoner swap of Bout for Griner was a mistake. “The (Joe) Biden administration’s potential decision to exchange this heinous Russian criminal, who is serving jail time in the United States for being involved in killing Americans, is a huge mistake,” Koffler said. “This move will only encourage the Russian intelligence services to grab Americans on Russian soil, so they can be exchanged for much more valuable assets for (Vladimir) Putin.”
In the most recent TASS report, however, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Russian officials will not consider Griner for a prisoner swap with the United States until a court investigation into her case is completed.
The TASS story quoted Ryabkov as saying, “Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, commenting on reports about the possibility of exchanging Russian businessman Viktor Bout, convicted in the United States for the arms trade, for Griner, urged to wait for the completion of judicial procedures in her case.”
The reports of Griner’s detention being extended came a day after U.S. State Department officials briefed her Phoenix Mercury teammates and colleagues on Griner’s situation and efforts to bring her home.
“We are on Day 116 since BG has been wrongfully detained,” Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard said. “She’s our teammate, she’s an American and we want her back home.”
Mercury star guard Diana Taurasi, Griner’s teammate, is grateful that the U.S. State Department is taking the situation seriously.
“It’s something that we’ve all talked about intimately as a group, and now knowing the State Department at the highest level — from U.S. President Joe Biden to the team that is working on bringing back all Americans who are wrongfully detained — gives us a lot of confidence that they’re working on it,” Taurasi said.
Players from the National Basketball Association (NBA) — Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul, Los Angeles Lakers small forward Carmelo Anthony and Boston Celtics power forward Grant Williams, among others — have also come out to send messages of support for Griner.
Lindsay Kagawa-Colas, Griner’s agent, lamented in her Twitter account the decision by Russian authorities to extend Griner’s detention, saying that she was clearly being used as a political pawn. She added that Griner has not had a single phone call since she was incarcerated.
“Today’s extension is just further reinforcement that Brittney Griner — an Olympian and an American citizen — is being used as a political pawn,” Kagawa-Colas tweeted. “Her detention is inhumane and unacceptable. She has not had a single phone call in her 117 days of wrongful detention, and we call on @POTUS and @VP to act with urgency and do whatever it takes to bring Brittney home immediately,” Kagawa-Colas said.
During her detention, Griner has only been able to communicate to family and loved ones by sending and receiving emails, but restrictively. The emails are printed out and delivered sporadically in bunches to Griner by her lawyer after they are vetted by Russian officials. Griner doesn’t have access to an email account; she is either made to write a reply on paper or verbally dictate her response.
Aside from playing for the Phoenix Mercury, Griner also suits up for Russian basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg in the WNBA offseason.
Although detained as early as Feb. 17, it was only after more than two weeks, on March 5, that Griner’s arrest came to light — it was first reported in the New York Times and TASS that she was being held after customs officials at the Sheremetyevo Airport allegedly found contraband in her possession.
Griner could face up to 10 years in a Russian prison, if convicted.