Journalist calls WNBA star Brittney Griner’s arrest ‘the most audacious hostage taking by a state imaginable’

The American was arrested at an airport near Moscow nearly a month ago and faces up to 10 years in prison there

Abe Asher
Tuesday 15 March 2022 21:56 GMT
American basketball star Brittney Griner is detained in Russian airport

American basketball star Brittney Griner was arrested in mid-February at an airport outside Moscow, allegedly for carrying cannabis oil in her luggage, and has been held there since.

Now, American observers are increasingly alarmed for her safety. American Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian, who was detained in Tehran in 2016 and held in Iran’s Evin Prison for nearly two years, told CNN that Ms Griner’s arrest is “the most audacious hostage taking by a state imaginable”.

Both Mr Rezaian and Jonathan Franks, who works as a spokesperson for Trevor Reed, another American detained in Russia since 2019, told the news network that they have serious doubts about the validity of the charges against Ms Griner.

Mr Rezaian and Mr Franks view the timing of Ms Griner’s arrest, which came just days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, as suspicious. News of her arrest was only made public on 5 March, well after the invasion was underway and the US, among other Western nations, were sanctioning Russia for its aggression.

There are other reasons to be concerned, as well. Ms Griner is Black and openly gay, and is now being held in a country where Vladimir Putin’s government has consistently persecuted the LGBT+ community in recent years. Since Ms Griner’s arrest, Russian authorities have begun showing her mugshot on state television.

Many of the details around the arrest remain unclear. Ms Griner was returning to Russia from the US in February for her eighth season with the Yekaterinburg-based women’s basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg, who Ms Griner plays for during the WNBA offseason, when she was arrested.

Initially, people with knowledge of the situation said that there was a push to keep the story of her detainment quiet so as not to increase her profile and value to the Russian state as a hostage. But Ms Griner’s family and American government officials have sounded increasingly public alarms in recent weeks about the 31-year-old’s future prospects.

US Rep Colin Allred of Ms Griner’s home state of Texas said last week that the US embassy has been denied consular access to Ms Griner for weeks and that it is unclear where exactly Ms Griner is being held. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for his part, said that the State Department is working to help free Ms Griner and all Americans currently being held in Russia.

Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner (Getty Images)

Ms Griner is one of the most decorated women’s basketball players of all time. The Houston native starred in college at Baylor, where she led the Bears to a national championship in 2012, and has gone on to win a WNBA championship with the Phoenix Mercury, two Olympic gold medals, and four EuroLeague championships.

Like many of her WNBA colleagues, Ms Griner has long competed in Russia during the offseason – where salaries are multiple times higher for women’s basketball stars than they are in the United States.

“Our government, the State Department, folks like myself in Congress on the Foreign Affairs Committee, we’re gonna do everything we can to get her home, to get any other American who’s been detained unjustly home​,” Mr Allred said on CNN.

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