Why was Brittney Griner arrested in Russia?
The WNBA star has been detained in Russia for the past three weeks, but why are we just hearing about this now? Suspicions over Putin’s motives grow
On Saturday, the news broke that Brittney Griner, one of the WNBA’s biggest names, had been arrested by Russian customs officials in Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport. She was allegedly carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage and she was held on suspicion of drug smuggling.
As eye-catching as this new is, even more strange is the fact that it has been revealed that this arrest had happened more than three weeks ago and has only been revealed to the world now. This fact raises more questions than it answers. How could a WNBA player simply disappear for three weeks and nobody seemed to notice until now? How did Russian officials think that this would escape notice? I understand that they had their hands full, what with invading neighboring countries and whatnot, but really… nobody noticed?
The details of the story are pretty standard: a passenger, upon arrival from New York, was asked to pass her luggage through X-ray screening after a drug-sniffing dog detected “the possible presence of narcotic substances”. At this point, electronic vape cartridges were found containing hashish oil and the passenger was taken into custody.
The Russian federal customs service didn’t name Griner as the passenger, simply referring to her as a WNBA player and member of the US national team. However, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, has confirmed that she has remained in close contact with Brittney, her legal representation in Russia, her teams in both countries and the WNBA and NBA.
“As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case,” said Kagawa Colas, “but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”
Brittney Griner is a WNBA champion with the Phoenix Mercury and perennial All-Star, and one of many American women’s basketball players who spend their winters in Russia, where they can command annual salaries in excess of $1 million. Since 2014, Griner has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg, alongside U.S. stars Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, and Breanna Stewart.
The WNBA released a statement last week saying that all WNBA players in Ukraine had already fled the country and many players in Russia were following US State Department advice to Americans and making plans to leave the country.
Griner was standout at Baylor University and is a two-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA. She reportedly earns as much as $1.5 million playing in the Russian Women’s Premier Basketball League.
Since the arrest has been made public, a flood of support has come out from all quarters. The WNBA has expressed their support and Griner’s Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee has demanded her immediate release.
“I don't want to disregard a sovereign nation, but Putin has disregarded sovereign nations his entire service in this world and anyone that is killing and attacking and destroying Ukraine… has no right to hold Ms. Griner. Period.”
Congresswoman Lee also expressed fear for Griner's safety while in custody in Russia due to President Vladimir Putin’s famously strict anti-gay legislation.
“Please allow Ms. Griner to safely leave. Allow her legal representation to handle her matters and ask the United States to take a special attention to all of those detained in Russia at this time.”
The U.S. State Department is more dour on the subject, arguing that Putin is likely to keep Griner as a "high-profile hostage". Former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia and Ukraine Evelyn Farkas said, “If we want her out of jail, Russia is going to have some terms. It could be a prisoner swap. They also could use it as an implicit threat or blackmail to get us to do something or not do something. Either way, they find it useful.”