WASHINGTON — For another person in another country at another time, the case might have been a minor matter: an American citizen detained at an airport for allegedly possessing a cannabis derivative legal in much of the world.
But the circumstances for Brittney Griner couldn’t have been worse.
Griner, a WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested in Russia, where the offense can mean years in prison, and at a moment when tensions with the U.S. were rising to their highest point in decades. She is a prominent gay, Black woman facing trial in a country where authorities have been hostile to the LGBTQ community and the country’s nationalist zeal has raised concerns about how she will be treated.
“There are many countries around the world where you do not want to get in trouble, and Russia is one of them,” said Clarence Lusane, a Howard University political science professor who specializes in criminal justice and drug policy.
As extraordinary as her circumstances are, the details surrounding Griner’s case remain a mystery as a crucial court date approaches next month. Russian prosecutors have offered little clarity and the U.S. government has made only measured statements. Griner’s legal team has declined to speak out about the case as it works behind the scenes.
Griner is easily the most prominent American citizen known to be jailed by a foreign government, but in many ways her case isn’t unusual. Americans are frequently arrested overseas on drug and other charges and U.S. authorities are limited about what they can say or the help they can offer. The State Department generally can’t do much to help beyond consular visits and helping the American get an attorney. It also can’t say much unless the person arrested waives privacy rights, which Griner hasn’t fully done.
In some cases, U.S. officials do speak out loudly when they’re convinced an American has been wrongly detained. But Griner’s case is barely two months old and officials have yet to make that determination. A State Department office that works to free American hostages and unjust detainees is not known to be involved.
The Phoenix Mercury star was detained at a Moscow airport in mid-February after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges that allegedly contained oil derived from cannabis — accusations that could carry up to 10 years in prison, though some experts predict she’d get much less if convicted. She was returning to the country after the Russian League, in which she also plays, was taking a break for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament.
U.S. officials have said they are tracking the case but have not spoken extensively about it, in part because Griner has not signed a full Privacy Act Waiver. The statements so far have been careful and restrained, focused on ensuring she has access to U.S. consular affairs officials — she had a meeting last month — rather than explicitly demanding her immediate release.
There’s little the U.S. government can do diplomatically to end a criminal prosecution in another country, particularly in the early days of a case. Any deal that would require concessions by the U.S. would seem a nonstarter, especially with Russia at war with Ukraine and the U.S. coordinating actions involving Russia with Western allies.
“It’s a trial lawyer’s nightmare since you have to conduct a trial when the larger political environment is negative,” said William Butler, a Russian law expert and professor at Penn State Dickinson Law.
The State Department has been “doing everything we can to support Brittney Griner to support her family, and to work with them to do everything we can, to see that she is treated appropriately and to seek her release,” spokesman Ned Price said last month. Last week, he said the U.S. was in frequent contact with her legal team and “broader network.”
That’s a more restrained posture than the Biden administration has taken with two other Americans jailed in Russia — Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage-related charges his family says are bogus, and Trevor Reed, a Marine veteran sentenced to nine years on charges that he assaulted a police officer in Moscow as he was being driven to a police station after a night of heavy drinking.
The State Department has pressed Russia for their release. In contrast to Griner’s case, it has described both as unjustly detained.
Race and gender issues are front and center in the Griner case.
Lusane, the Howard University professor, said under Putin “there’s been a hyper nationalism in Russia, so basically anyone who’s not considered Slavic is considered an outsider and a potential threat.”
He added, “She fits into that category.”
On the other hand, he said, there could also be an opening for Putin to build “an inroad into the African American community” by ordering her released as a humanitarian gesture.
Some Griner supporters, including Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, have maintained that her case would be getting more attention if she weren’t a Black woman.
The president of the WNBA players’ association, Nneka Ogwumike, said in a “Good Morning America” interview that Griner was in Russia because WNBA players don’t earn enough in the U.S.
“She’s over there because of a gender issue, pay inequity,” Ogwumike said.
Many of Griner’s fellow WNBA players have remained circumspect for fear of antagonizing the situation, though her coach and some of her teammates have made clear in interviews that the 6-foot-9 center is on their minds.
“I spent 10 years there, so I know the way things work,” Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi said of Russia. “It’s delicate.”
Griner recently had her detention extended to May 19. More information about her case may emerge then. But regardless of the factual allegations against her in court, it’s impossible to divorce the legal case from the broader political implications.
“Russians are great chess players,” said Peter Maggs, a research professor and expert in Russian law at the University of Illinois College of Law. “The more pawns you have, the greater your chance of eventual victory. And since things are not going their way, obviously, in Ukraine, any pawns they have they want to hold on to.”