WNBA basketballer arrested in Russia could become ‘high profile hostage’, ex-Pentagon official warns

WNBA icon Brittney Griner during Phoenix Mercury v Las Vegas Aces in 2021

Fears for WNBA icon Brittney Griner are growing after it emerged the athlete was taken into custody in Russia on drug charges.

News broke over the weekend that Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medallist, was arrested last month after customs officials allegedly detected hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.

Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is among those calling for Griner’s swift release.

“We know that there were some issues dealing with vape cartridges and other items but let me be very clear,” said Lee, who represents Griner’s hometown of Houston, Texas, in Congress. “Brittney Griner is a United States citizen, she was a guest in Russia … and I will be demanding her release.”

Brittney Griner, a basketball player, is seen wearing a dark uniform for her WNBA team

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury during the first half in Game Four of the 2021 WNBA semifinals on 6 October 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Getty/Christian Petersen)

Lee added that Russia’s actions in Ukraine undermined its authority, saying: “I don’t want to disregard a sovereign nation but Putin has disregarded sovereign nations his entire service in this world.

“Anyone that is killing and attacking and destroying Ukraine, a neighbouring country that is not bothering them, has no right to hold Ms Griner. Period.”

Meanwhile, a former Pentagon official told Yahoo Sports she feared Putin could use the LGBT+ icon as a “high profile hostage” during the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“If we want her out of jail, Russia is going to have some terms,” said Evelyn Farkas, who served as the US deputy assistant secretary of defence for Russia and Ukraine from 2012 to 2015. “It could be a prisoner swap. They also could use it as an implicit threat or blackmail to get us to do something or not do something. Either way, they find it useful.”

The Russian Federal Customs Services released a statement claiming that officials detained Brittney Griner in February for possession of vape cartridges that contained the oil found in her luggage.

It also released a video that showed airport security workers searching the luggage of a passenger, who was later identified as Griner.

The customs service said a criminal case has been opened, and Griner could face up to 10 years in a Russian prison if convicted.

Griner’s agent Lindsay Colas told The Guardian that they are aware of the “situation” with the Phoenix Mercury player in Russia.

Colas said the agency is in “close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams, and the WNBA and NBA”.

“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,” Colas said.

The WNBA said that Griner has the league’s “full support”, and its “main priority” is her “swift and safe return” to the USA.

Griner’s wife Cherelle also spoke out and thanked those who had reached out “regarding my wife’s safe return from Russia” in an Instagram post on Saturday (5 March).

“Your prayers and support are greatly appreciated,” Cherelle wrote. “I love my wife wholeheartedly, so this message comes during one of the weakest moments of my life.” She asked fans to honour the family’s privacy as they continue to work to get Griner home.

According to the Associated Press, Griner has played professional basketball in Russia for the last seven years.

She played for her Russian team the UMMC Ekaterinburg on 29 January before the league had a two-week break in early February.

Over a dozen WNBA players have played in Russia and Ukraine this winter, and the WNBA confirmed that all players besides Griner had left both countries.

News of Brittney Griner’s detainment comes as the US placed sanctions on Russia after Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine last month.

Russian forces continue their deadly invasion of Ukraine.