Photo from the Dallas Morning News.
By Terrance Turner
March 5, 2022 (updated Aug. 4, 2022)
WNBA star Brittney Griner has been found guilty on charges of attempting to smuggle illegal narcotics into Russia. A Russian court sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony, according to her lawyers.
The verdict was virtually preordained in a Russian court system with a 99% conviction rate. And officials in Moscow had said that a verdict was a necessary precondition for a possible exchange. The United States and Russia have been discussing a prisoner exchange that would bring Griner back to the U.S.
Today President Biden called the sentence “one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
Russian authorities detained Griner at an airport near Moscow after allegedly finding hashish oil in her luggage. According to the New York Times, the Russian Federal Customs Service said in March that its officials detained an American basketball player after finding vape cartridges containing hash oil (derived from cannabis) in her luggage. (The incident occurred at the Sheremetyevo airport, located 18 miles northwest of Moscow in the town of Khimki, Moscow Oblast.)
The Customs Service did not identify the player, but said in a statement that she had won 2 Olympic gold medals with the United States. The Russian news agency TASS identified her as WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner (who won gold medals with the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team in 2016 and 2021).
Griner was likely overseas for work. “Many W.N.B.A. players compete in Russia, where salaries are more lucrative, during the American league’s off-season,” the Times stated. “Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years.” (Writer Charlotte Clymer noted that Griner makes more overseas than in the U.S., where WNBA max salary is less than 1/3 of NBA’s.)
The Customs Service released a video of a masked traveler (presumably Griner) going through security. But the Service stated that the security screening occurred in February, sparking concerns that Griner may have been in Russian custody for weeks. According to the statement, a criminal case has been opened into the large-scale transportation of drugs, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years behind bars in Russia.
According to ESPN, the State Department issued a “do not travel” advisory for Russia on Jan. 23 that warned Americans against traveling there, because of “the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens, the embassy’s limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Russia, COVID-19 and related entry restrictions […] and the arbitrary enforcement of local law.” Another advisory was issued nine days after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.
This case takes place across a backdrop of international upheaval and war. Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 23, after weeks of tensions spurred partly by the prospect of Ukraine’s potential membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. Air strikes were conducted, over 400 missiles were fired, and Russian troops and tanks entered the country on three fronts: from Belarus in the north, from the east of Ukraine, and from the south. the result was been massive displacement, a humanitarian crisis, and global sanctions and condemnation of Russia’s actions — an environment that Griner now finds herself caught in the crosshairs of.
In a statement, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said: “We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams, and the W.N.B.A. and N.B.A.” Griner attracted national attention for her play at Baylor University; the school released a statement today expressing support and hoping for her safe return. “Right now, our foremost concern is for her safety and well-being during this difficult time,” the school said.