WNBA star Brittney Griner's detention in Russia extended to May 19

ByESPN.com news services via via logo
March 17, 2022, 9:49 AM

Russian media reported that the detention of WNBA star Brittney Griner was extended until May 19, a development that could see the two-time Olympic champion being held for at least three months before her case is resolved.

The case of the 31-year-old Griner, one of the most recognizable players in women's basketball, comes amid heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Griner was detained at a Moscow airport on February 17 after Russian authorities said a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges allegedly containing oil derived from cannabis, which could carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

"The court granted the request of the investigation and extended the period of detention of the U.S. citizen Griner until May 19," the court said, according to the state news agency Tass.

The court approved prosecutors' request to extend her pre-trial detention in order to continue investigating her case. Tom Firestone, a former U.S. Justice Department legal resident advisor to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said that such delays are standard in Russia and that she may be held without trial for up to a year, or up to 18 months in extraordinary circumstances.

A Russian state news agency reported that Griner's attorney has asked for her to be transferred to house arrest as she awaits trial, saying Russian officials are holding her illegally. RIA Novosti reports that Griner's local attorney, Alexander Boykov, argued before the Moscow Regional Court that prosecutors took too long to charge her or provide her access to a lawyer or U.S. Consulate officials. Experts say such requests are standard and are unlikely to succeed.

Boykov also submitted letters from "the women's team in Ekaterinburg" that she plays for, vouching for her character and prominence as a player. He said a local acquaintance of Griner's who lives near the courthouse has offered to house her for the duration of her case. The lawyer said she was held at the border customs office for 16 hours after she was detained at 11 a.m. Moscow time on Feb. 17.

The article said, "Griner fully supports her lawyers' position, although she refuses to take part in the hearing of the arguments. Neither Griner nor her lawyers have contested the accusation of illegal import of narcotics. They have not claimed she is innocent."

Representatives for Griner and the U.S. Department of State have not commented on how Griner intends to plead to the charges.

The article said prosecutors argued against keeping Griner under house arrest, saying, "her detention (is) lawful and just and that there is no reason for reduction of restraint because as a foreigner she has no permanent residence or registration in Russia."

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow did not immediately return calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The U.S. State Department has been "doing everything we can to support Brittney Griner to support her family, and to work with them to do everything we can, to see that she is treated appropriately and to seek her release," spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday at a briefing. He cited privacy considerations in not giving out more details.

Ekaterina Kalugina of the regional Public Monitoring Commission, a state-backed panel in Russia that monitors prisoners' conditions, told Tass that Griner was sharing a cell with two other female detainees accused of narcotics offenses.

Griner's cellmates spoke English and were helping her to communicate with staff at the pre-trial detention facility and to obtain books, Kalugina said.

"The only objective problem has turned out to be the basketball player's height," Tass quoted Kalugina as saying of the 6-foot-9 Griner. "The beds in the cell are clearly intended for a person of lesser height."

Griner has won two Olympic gold medals with the U.S., a WNBA championship with the Phoenix Mercury and a national championship at Baylor. She is a seven-time All-Star. The WNBA season opens May 6.

She was one of a dozen WNBA players who played in Russia or Ukraine this past season. All except Griner have left since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Griner has played in Russia for the last seven years in the winter, earning over $1 million per season -- more than quadruple her WNBA salary. She last played for her Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg on Jan. 29 before the league took a two-week break in early February for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments. She was arrested in Moscow upon returning to Russia.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined a growing contingent of family, friends and officials calling for her release with a "Free Brittney" tweet Wednesday.

It's unclear how much progress was being made in the case because Griner's group has been trying to work quietly for her release and declining to talk publicly since her arrest was made public earlier this month.

Griner's wife, Cherelle, thanked everyone for their support but also has said little else on social media.

"Everyone's getting the strategy of say less and push more privately behind the scenes," WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told the AP on Wednesday. "It's the strategy you get from the State Department and administration. It's our No. 1 priority in talking with her agent and strategists."

The State Department has cited privacy considerations for not releasing more information about Griner's situation despite the intense public interest in the case. Indeed, federal law prohibits U.S. officials from providing personal information about any American citizen arrested or otherwise detained overseas without their express written consent.

There are very limited exceptions to the rules in the 1974 Privacy Act that also forbids the public release of passport records of U.S. citizens. One exception is when the subject of an inquiry has signed a document known as a Privacy Act Waiver that allows the State Department in Washington and diplomats at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad to discuss specific information.

Griner is not the only American currently detained in Russia. Marine veteran Trevor Reed was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2020 on charges he assaulted police officers in Moscow, and Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan is serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government have said are false. U.S. officials have publicly called for Moscow to release them.

Information from ESPN's T.J. Quinn and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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