Texas lawmaker says Russia’s arrest of WNBA star Brittney Griner was ‘targeted and purposeful’

‘I’m obviously concerned and believe the actions of the [Russian] Federal Customs officers was unnecessary’

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
,Alex Woodward
Monday 14 March 2022 14:58 GMT
Related video: Russia CCTV believed to show basketball player Griner

Texas Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee has said that she believes that US Basketball player Brittney Griner was “targeted” for arrest by Russian officials.

The Phoenix Mercury WNBA star, who plays abroad in the offseason, was arrested at a Russian airport in February on charges of possession of hashish oil.

Advocates and lawmakers now fear that she has become a political prisoner to be used as a pawn following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ms Jackson, who represents a district in Ms Griner’s home state, toldThe Hill that she was concerned about “her family and her privacy”.

“But under the circumstances, I’m obviously concerned and believe the actions of the [Russian] Federal Customs officers was unnecessary. And it was, in my perspective, targeted and purposeful,” she said. “I don’t underestimate anything that Russia would do. With that in mind, I’ve got to keep fighting on all aspects of the front to ensure her safety.”

The New York Times initially reported that Ms Griner was detained by the Russian Federal Customs Service at the Sheremetyevo Airport when dogs detected vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage.

Texas Democratic Representative Colin Allred told CNN that Ms Griner had been detained on 17 February, shortly before the Russian invasion began on 24 February. He added that the US embassy in Moscow hasn’t had any contact with Ms Griner following her detention.

“That’s extremely unusual and extremely concerning,” Mr Allred said. “The fact that we’ve not had official government contact with her to help her through this process. She is in touch with her Russian lawyer who is helping us understand her situation and working through the legal process.”

Former legal advisor at the US embassy Tom Firestone told The Hill Ms Griner’s case is “quite serious” regardless of the political situation.

“Bringing in a narcotic substance would be a very, very serious matter,” he said.

He noted that the US embassy staff is “stretched thin”.

“That’s bad on various levels, but what it means is that she will have a harder time getting attention from the consular officer at the embassy in Moscow just because they are so — they’re stretched so thin,” he said.

Mr Allredd told CNN that while the US embassy has requested to speak to Ms Griner, that request hasn’t been granted for three weeks.

National Black Justice Coalition executive director David Johns told The Hill that Ms Griner being a Black, LGBT+ American “make her prone to particular attack” in Russia, which has a history of anti-LGBT+ discrimination.

Two Russian women with opposing stances on the war both arrested within minutes of each other

Mr Johns said “it’s possible” that Ms Griner may not come back to the US.

“I mean, all of those things are possibilities ... having watched Russia slow-walk into a war right before our eyes,” he said.

Mr Firestone said Ms Griner’s family, friends, and legal team may have chosen to stay quiet in an effort to get her out.

“I assume ... she and her family and the lawyers have decided just to challenge through the legal system rather than try to make this into a political case. Which given the nature of the current political situation is probably a wise decision on their part,” he toldThe Hill.

This map shows the extent of Russia’s war in Ukraine
This map shows the extent of Russia’s war in Ukraine (Press Association Images)

Cherelle Griner, Ms Griner’s wife, posted on Instagram following the detainment that she was grateful for the support shown by members of the public, but requested “privacy” as attempts to bring her back to the US continue.

Ms Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, said that “as this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern”.

Ms Jackson Lee added that her “role is to ensure that the federal government is squarely aware, engaged and concerned about her safety and security, as there are others who have been harmed by made pawns even before the war”.

“She is an American and she’s coming home,” she added.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Friday that the agency has been “working very diligently” on her case and remains “in close touch with those around her, providing all forms of appropriate support and will continue to do that.”

During a joint press conference in Moldova on 6 March, without mentioning Ms Griner specifically, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said an embassy team is working on cases of other Americans who are detained in Russia – including Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed – and that the US is “doing everything we can to see to it that their rights are upheld and respected.”

“Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance,” he said. “And that includes in Russia.”

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