WASHINGTON (AP) — For another person in another country at another time, the case might have been minor: a U.S. citizen detained at an airport for alleged possession of 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 time when tensions with the United States were at their highest level since decades. She’s a prominent gay black woman who faces 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 dealt with.
“There are many countries in the world where you don’t 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 politics. on drugs.
As extraordinary as his situation is, the details surrounding the Griner case remain a mystery as a crucial court date approaches next month. Russian prosecutors offered little clarity and the US government made only measured statements. Griner’s legal team declined to discuss the case as it operates behind the scenes.
Griner is by far the most high-profile American citizen known to have been imprisoned by a foreign government, but in many ways her case is not unusual. Americans are frequently arrested overseas for drug and other trafficking, and US authorities are limited in what they can say or what help they can offer. The State Department usually can’t do much to help beyond consular visits and helping the American find an attorney. Nor can he say much unless the person arrested waives their privacy rights, which Griner has not entirely done.
In some cases, US officials speak loudly when they are convinced an American has been wrongfully detained. But Griner’s case is barely two months old, and authorities have yet to make that decision. A State Department office that works to free American hostages and wrongful detainees is not known to be involved.
The Phoenix Mercury star was arrested at a Moscow airport in mid-February after Russian authorities said a search of his luggage revealed vaping cartridges allegedly containing cannabis-derived oil – charges could result in up to 10 years in prison, although some experts predict she’d get significantly less if convicted. She was returning to the country after the Russian League, in which she also plays, paused for the FIBA World Cup Qualifying Tournament.
US officials have said they are following the case but haven’t spoken much about it, in part because Griner has not signed a full privacy law waiver. Statements so far have been cautious and restrained, focused on ensuring she has access to US consular affairs officials – she had a meeting last month – rather than explicitly demanding his immediate release.
There is little the US government can do diplomatically to end a criminal prosecution in another country, especially in the early days of a case. Any deal that would demand concessions from the United States would seem like a failure, especially with Russia at war with Ukraine and the United States coordinating actions involving Russia with Western allies.
“It’s a litigator’s nightmare because 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 “done everything we can to help Brittney Griner support her family and to work with them to do all we can, to ensure that she is treated appropriately and to ask for her release,” spokesman Ned Price said last month. . Last week, he said the United States was in frequent contact with his legal team and his “wider network”.
It’s a narrower stance than the Biden administration has taken with two other Americans jailed in Russia — Paul Whelan, a Michigan corporate security official sentenced to 16 years in prison on charges related to the spying his family says they are fake, and Trevor Reed, a Navy veteran sentenced to nine years on charges that he assaulted a police officer in Moscow as he was being driven to the police station after a night of heavy drinking.
The State Department pressured Russia for their release. Unlike Griner’s case, he described the two as wrongfully detained.
Issues of race and gender are at the center of the Griner case.
Lusane, a professor at Howard University, said that under Putin “there has been hyper-nationalism in Russia, so basically anyone who isn’t considered Slavic is seen as 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 incursion into the African-American community” by ordering his release as a humanitarian gesture.
Some Griner supporters, including Democratic Representative Cori Bush of Missouri, argued that her case would receive more attention if she was not a black woman.
WNBA Players Association President Nneka Ogwumike said in a “Good Morning America” interview that Griner was in Russia because WNBA players don’t earn enough in the United States.
“She’s there because of a gender issue, pay inequality,” Ogwumike said.
Many of Griner’s other WNBA players remained wary for fear of upsetting the situation, although his coach and some of his teammates made it clear in interviews that the 6-foot-9 center was on their minds.
“I spent 10 years there, so I know how things work,” Phoenix goaltender Diana Taurasi said of Russia. “It’s delicate.”
Griner recently had his detention extended until May 19. More information about his case could then emerge. But regardless of the factual allegations against her in court, it is impossible to disentangle the legal case from the wider political implications.
“Russians are great chess players,” said Peter Maggs, a research professor and expert on Russian law at the University of Illinois School of Law. “The more pawns you have, the greater your chances of final victory. And since things are not going their way, obviously, in Ukraine, all the pawns they have, they want to keep them.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.