US basketball star Brittney Griner still locked up in Russian prison after more than 100 days

WNBA Brittney Griner in Russia

Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star Brittney Griner is still locked away in a Russian prison despite being held on so-called drug charges for more than three romans.

Phoenix Mercury star Griner was first detained on 17 February after recently playing for the Moscow team UMMC Ekaterinburg – with Saturday (28 May) marking 100 days since she became a prisoner.

The Associated Press reports that she has been playing professional basketball in Russia for the last seven years.

The out gay basketball star was first arrested after sniffer dogs allegedly detected vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is made from cannabis leaves, in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. She was charged with the large-scale transportation of drugs as reports of her detention were made public knowledge in March. 

Following her initial arrest, the Russian Federal Customs Services released a statement confirming that 31-year-old Griner had been detained for possession of the vape cartridges. A video showing airport security workers searching the luggage of a passenger, who was later identified as Griner, was also released by Russian authorities.

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

As concerns for Brittney Griner grew, the country’s newly state-owned media released an image of seven-time WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medallist in custody on 8 March. Griner was pictured holding a piece of paper, although it is unclear what was written on it.

Meanwhile, Phoenix Mercury said that it was “closely monitoring” the situation: “We love and support Brittney and at this time our main concern is her safety, physical and mental health, and her safe return home.”

Fears for Griner’s well-being were heightened by Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, with news of the basketball player’s detainment coming after the US placed sanctions on Russia. The Biden administration has said that Griner is being “wrongfully detained”, with Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee being among those who have called for her release.

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

Lee also condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine, saying: “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 in the US, former Pentagon official, Evelyn Farkas, suggested that Russia could use Griner as a “high-profile hostage”.

Farkas told Yahoo Sports that Russia could demand a “prisoner swap” with Grier or use her to blackmail the US. 

More than 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.

Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian, who was detained in Iran’s Evin Prison from 2014 to 2016, weighed in on the situation, saying: “I know from my own case that the supposed charges against me were not based in anything like reality, and they were used to perpetuate a narrative about why I was being held.”

Speaking to CNN, Rezaian suggested that Griner could be in detention for a long period of time, describing it as “absurd” that Griner is being “held on unsubstantiated charges at the dawn of a cataclysmic war on the other side of the world”.

In April, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert insisted that Griner is “safe” despite the “unimaginable situation” that she is in. A US embassy official in Moscow reiterated that Grier is in “good condition” after being allowed to visit her in detention

Engelbert also confirmed that the WNBA is “working with her legal representation, her agent, elected leaders, [and] the administration” to help bring Griner home.

Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, has publicly spoken about her partner’s detention, asking Joe Biden to “bring BG home” in an Instagram post that marked 100 days since her initial detention. 

Although US officials and the WNBA seem to be in negotiation with Russia, Griner’s location is still unknown. On 13 May, Griner’s lawyer said her pre-trial detention in Russia had been extended by one month, according to the Associated Press

However, Griner’s lawyer Alexander Boykov believes the short extension suggests that Griner’s case will go to trial soon. On the same day, Griner was pictured leaving a courtroom following a hearing in Khimki, which is outside Moscow. 

The WNBA has paid tribute to Griner by installing floor decals on every home court featuring the player’s initials and jersey number, 42.