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What We Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia


As tensions rose between Russia and the United States, the Russian authorities detained Brittney Griner, a W.N.B.A. star, on drug charges. The Russian Federal Customs Service announced Ms. Griner’s detention on March 5 but said she was stopped at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow last month. A Texas congressman later said that Ms. Griner was detained on Feb. 17.

On March 17, a Russian court extended Ms. Griner’s detention to May 19.

The detention of Ms. Griner, 31, a seven-time W.N.B.A. All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury and a key figure in two champion Olympic teams, came during an inflamed standoff between Russia and the United States over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and pulled the player in the middle of the most acute crisis between the two countries since the Cold War.

Here is what we know so far about Ms. Griner’s detention.

The Russian Federal Customs Service said that a sniffer dog had prompted it to search the carry-on luggage of an American basketball player at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow, and that it had found vape cartridges containing hashish oil. A state-owned Russian news agency then identified the player as Ms. Griner.

Hashish oil is a marijuana concentrate that has a high concentration of the psychoactive chemical THC, and it is commonly sold in cartridges that are used in vape pens. The Russian Federal Customs Service said that customs officers had noticed vapes after scanning the traveler’s bag.

The customs service said that a criminal case had been opened into the large-scale transportation of drugs, a charge that could carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

It released a video of a traveler who appeared to be Ms. Griner going through airport security with a trolley suitcase and a small backpack, followed by footage of someone examining a package that appeared to be from the traveler’s suitcase.

“Brittney has always handled herself with the utmost professionalism during her long tenure with USA Basketball,” U.S.A. Basketball said on Twitter.

The screening at the airport occurred in February, according to the Customs Service. Representative Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, said that Ms. Griner had been detained on Feb. 17 and that he was working with the State Department to get her back to the United States.

“We’re trying to make sure that anything we do is helpful in terms of her getting released,” Mr. Allred told The New York Times on March 10. “It is an extremely sensitive situation.”

Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in a statement on Saturday that she was “in close contact with” Griner, but declined to provide details about the situation in Russia.

“We are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern,” Colas said.

It is still unclear whether Russia might have targeted Ms. Griner as leverage against the United States, which has led a widespread effort to impose harsh sanctions on Russia and its elite.

A Russian court has extended her detention by two months and has denied an appeal from her legal team, which had hoped to have her transferred to house arrest. (The W.N.B.A. season begins May 6.)

Ms. Griner is “OK” and has seen her Russian legal team multiple times a week while she has been in custody, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who asked not to be identified publicly because of the sensitivity of the matter.

On March 7, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said that she had “seen the reports” about Griner’s detention but that federal privacy law prevented the U.S. government from discussing a person’s detention without their written consent.

A day earlier, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken also cited privacy constraints when he declined to comment on the detention at a news conference. Mr. Blinken also did not respond to a question about whether Russia had announced her arrest as retaliation for the economic, military and diplomatic pressure the United States has leveled against Russia in recent days.

But American officials have repeatedly accused Russia of detaining U.S. citizens on doubtful pretexts.

“This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning US citizens,” Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas, wrote on Twitter on March 5, citing the case of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine whom a Russian court sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020 on charges of violence against police officers that his family and supporters described as fraudulent.

On the same day, the State Department released an updated advisory urging American citizens to leave Russia immediately given the “potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials.”

Ms. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years during the W.N.B.A. off-season.

Many American players compete with high-paying Russian teams: About 70 W.N.B.A. players have decided to play with international teams instead of resting during the off-season this year, with more than a dozen in Russia and Ukraine.

A W.N.B.A. spokeswoman said on March 5 that all the others had already left Russia and Ukraine.

The financial incentives are compelling. W.N.B.A. players make a fraction of what their male counterparts do, with their maximum salary in 2022 at $228,094 while the top N.B.A. players are paid tens of millions of dollars.

International women’s teams, which tend to have more government and corporate financial support than those in the W.N.B.A., can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a season, and sometimes more than $1 million.

Some observers criticized the gender pay gap in American basketball in connection to Ms. Griner’s detention.

Mr. Blinken said the State Department would “provide every possible assistance” to any American held by a foreign government.

“Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance,” Mr. Blinken said. “And that includes in Russia.”

But U.S. authorities said that Griner has been denied consular assistance.

“For all detainees, and that includes Ms. Griner, we’re deeply concerned about our inability to access any of these U.S. citizens in recent months,” Jalina Porter, the U.S. State Department’s deputy spokeswoman, said at a news briefing on Friday.

She added that the embassy in Moscow was continuing to press for consular assistance, though so far unsuccessfully. “We are closely engaged on this case and are in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team,” she said.



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