The American basketball star who was arrested in Russia on allegations of drug smuggling was detained February 17, a US congressman’s office said Thursday, providing the most detailed public account yet of how long Brittney Griner has been in custody.
And US efforts to get Griner out of Russia are complicated by strained relations between the two countries – a deterioration exacerbated by Russia’s war with Ukraine, the lawmaker, US Rep. Colin Allred, told ESPN a day earlier.
“I do think that it’s really unusual that we’ve not been granted access to her from our embassy and our consular services,” Allred, D-Texas, told ESPN on Wednesday.
“The Russian criminal justice system is very different than ours, very opaque. We don’t have a lot of insight into where she is in that process right now, but she’s been held for three weeks now, and that’s extremely concerning,” Allred said.
News of Griner’s arrest broke in the US last weekend, with Russian media reporting she was detained at a Moscow airport on some unspecified day in February.
Allred’s office has been working with the US State Department and learned she was detained February 17, he told ESPN. His office confirmed that date to CNN on Thursday.
A State Department spokesperson said Thursday the department is “aware of and closely engaged on this case.”
Many details still are in question, including precisely where Griner is now.
Russian authorities said Griner, 31, had cannabis oil in her luggage while at the airport and accused her of smuggling significant amounts of a narcotic substance, an offense the Russian government says is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Griner, a two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist and WNBA star, plays for the Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason. A photo posted to social media on February 16 appears to show Griner at a hotel in New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Four days later, Griner’s Russian team played in a game and she was not in the lineup.
As word spread in the US of Griner’s plight, legislators have pushed for the federal government to intervene. The Biden administration is working to try to get Griner out of Russia, members of the Congressional Black Caucus said after meeting Monday with President Joe Biden.
The backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – which has led to widespread international condemnation and the severing of many diplomatic ties – has led analysts and government officials to note it may be very difficult to get Griner and other Americans incarcerated in Russia back home.
Supporters of Griner and two Americans who’ve been detained in Russia much longer – Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan – having been pleading for help freeing their loved ones, even as diplomatic channels fade.
Reed, 30, and Whelan, 52, were arrested and convicted separately for alleged crimes they’ve emphatically denied well before the Russian incursion of Ukraine, and the pair remain in prison, serving extended sentences denounced by US officials as unfair.
“What’s obviously different (in Griner’s case) is that Brittney is an extremely high-profile athlete, and it’s happening during the course of a Russian-begun war in Ukraine, in which we are deeply opposed to what they’re doing,” Allred told ESPN.
Allred hopes the US can move quickly to get Griner out of Russia, he told ESPN.
“I’m sure her lawyer in Russia is working through the process, but every day for anyone being held, particularly being held overseas, is a lifetime,” Allred said. “I recognize that for her friends and family, this must be incredibly difficult time. And for her, I’m sure the uncertainty about what’s happening is probably just terrible. And so, hopefully, whatever happens, we can get this moving quickly and get her out.”
Little clarity over what comes next
The scarcity of details provided by Russian authorities has troubled those close to Griner and has others asking what, if anything, can be done to ensure her safety and freedom while Russian troops mount their offensive against Ukrainians.
Citing a law enforcement source, the Russian news agency TASS identified an American woman arrested on drug charges at a Moscow airport as Griner, according to The New York Times. The Russian Federal Customs Service confirmed the arrest of an American athlete in February yet did not identify the person by name nor the exact date of the arrest, per a statement initially reported Saturday by Russia’s Interfax News Agency.
The customs service said the American was placed in pretrial detention and noted a criminal case was opened for smuggling significant amounts of narcotic substances, and the offense carries a punishment of up to 10 years imprisonment.
“The customs inspection of the hand luggage being carried by the US citizen confirmed the presence of vapes with specifically smelling liquid, and an expert determined that the liquid was cannabis oil (hash oil), which is a narcotic substance,” the customs service said.
Russian state-owned news channel Russia 24 reported a photo was taken by authorities of Griner at a police station holding a sign with her name on it.
A member of the US House Armed Services Committee told CNN on Monday that “it’s going to be very difficult” to get Griner out of Russia.
“Our diplomatic relationships with Russia are nonexistent at the moment,” US Rep. John Garamendi, D-California, said. “Perhaps during the various negotiations that may take place, she might be able to be one of the solutions. I don’t know.”
He also noted that “Russia has some very, very strict LGBT rules and laws” – though it’s not clear whether those rules and laws might impact the case of Griner, who is gay and married. Russia has passed LGBTQ-related legislation and outlawed the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors.”
Organizations such as the WNBA, the Phoenix Mercury and the WNBA players’ union have shared their concerns for Griner and their hopes for her safety. The WNBA’s other players have left Russia and Ukraine, it has said.
The arrest of one of the top athletes in women’s basketball also has struck a chord with many Americans. An online petition started on Change.org by Tamryn Spruill, a journalist covering women’s basketball, has garnered tens of thousands of signatures.
Griner’s high school basketball coach, Debbie Jackson, worries Griner’s case will be used for political purposes, she told CNN this week.
“My biggest fear is that … she will become a political pawn,” Jackson said.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, shared Monday on Instagram her and others’ grief over the situation and the scarcity of information provided from overseas.
“We love you babe! People say ‘stay busy.’ Yet, there’s not a task in this world that could keep any of us from wondering if you are safe,” she said.
“My heart, our hearts, are all skipping beats everyday that goes by without hearing from you. I miss your voice. I miss your presence. You’re our person! There are no words to express this pain. I’m hurting, we’re hurting. We await the day to love on you as a family.”
CNN’s Rosa Flores, Travis Caldwell, Lucy Kafanov, Paul P. Murphy, Holly Yan, Steve Almasy, Kelly McCleary, Allie Malloy, Wayne Sterling an Elizabeth Joseph contributed to this report.