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High Profile Hostage: Free Brittney Griner and Make Some Noise About It

Foreign Policy Brief #149 | By: Randy Wyrick | March 15, 2022

Header photo taken from: The New York Times

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Basketball star Brittney Griner is the latest American to be detained in Russia as supporters work desperately to free them.

Photo taken from: CNN

Policy Summary

American basketball superstar Brittney Griner is a political prisoner in Russia. To see her plight any other way is to fail to see it at all.

The Russians claim that, at the airport for her trip back to the U.S. (and who wouldn’t want to leave Russia) they found vape cartridges in  her luggage. The Russians unlawfully detained Griner on Feb. 17, as they were warming up their tank engines for what they wrong-headedly believed would be a springtime romp through Ukraine. She was celebrated in Russia for seven seasons. Now she’s their political prisoner.

Jonathan Franks, an attorney who has negotiated the release of prisoners in similar straits, is livid that western media parrots Russia’s allegations against Griner as facts. They’re likely not, and says Griner’s detention has the “hallmarks of a wrongful and arbitrary detention.” Like something out of a Terrorism for Dummies manual, the Russians paraded Griner in front of cameras. Her mug shot was displayed like some kind of hunting trophy. She’s facing decades in a Russian prison.

“I think that it is unlikely that Ms. Griner will get a fair trial,” Franks said, “because nobody gets a fair trial in Russia.

Along with Griner, Russia is holding two other Americans as political prisoners – Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. Russians have held Reed since August 2019. Around the globe, hostile governments are unlawfully detaining more than 50 Americans.

Policy Analysis

Why was she in Russia?

Griner, 31, has earned Olympic gold twice, an NCAA title at Baylor, a WNBA title, and is a seven-time all star. The WNBA’s 2020 collective bargaining agreement raises salaries up to half a million, a far cry from the tens of millions NBA stars are paid.

So, Griner and about 70 other WNBA stars play in other parts of the world during the offseason. Griner earned $1.5 million per season with her Russian team. The WNBA says everyone but Griner had already left Russia and Ukraine before the invasion. However, news of her captivity did not break in the U.S. until March 5, when global economic sanctions dropped on Russia.

Who knows what to do?

Jason Rezaian knows exactly what this is like. Rezaian was the Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief when he was taken prisoner July 22, 2014, charged by Iran with espionage and “propaganda against the establishment.” In a closed-door Iranian trial he was declared guilty. He was finally released January 16, 2016.

He urges people to make some noise, and make it now. He says maintaining “diplomatic niceties” about Griner will not get her released.


"The US gov. should make clear that, if a detention of an American is found to be politically motivated, there will be swift and severe consequences. It leaves our citizens languishing in prison, often for years, and signals to offenders that they can get away with it.”  – Jason Rezaian

Photo taken from: First Sportz

The NBA, one of the world’s most powerful sports leagues, owns the WNBA, Griner’s employer, Franks says the leagues’ reactions should be more “robust.”

Griner is the WNBA’s equivalent of Lebron James. Imagine the firestorm that would follow what amounts to a political abduction if it were James and not Griner, a black lesbian.

While working for the Washington Post in Tehran, Rezaian made countless trips in and out of Iran.

 

“I never had any problems until I did,” he says.

It’s possible Russia targeted Griner as leverage against the United States and the sanctions … in other words, a political prisoner. Rezaian says that, like him, Griner’s detention may turn out to be a marathon, not a sprint.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

Sports Journalist Tamryn Spriull has launched a petition on Change.org, More than 50,000 people have signed it so far.

Contact WNBA Commissioneer Cathy Engelbert at leaguepasssupport@wnba.com

Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) is working with the U.S. State Department to determine a way forward to secure Brittney Griner’s release. 

Contact his Washington, D.C. office at:

114 Cannon House Office Building

Washington, D.C.

Phone: 202-225-2231

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