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Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia extended by one month

WNBA star Brittney Griner leaves a courtroom outside Moscow after a hearing Friday at which her detention was extended by 30 days. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
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On the same day WNBA star Brittney Griner appeared in a Russian court — at a scheduling hearing that was moved up by six days and that resulted in another 30 days added to her pretrial detainment — Russia’s state news agency reported that U.S. and Russian authorities were discussing a prisoner swap of Griner and convicted arms smuggler Viktor Bout.

It was unclear whether the two developments — the expedited hearing and the report in Tass — were related. But they came 10 days after the Biden administration officially reclassified Griner’s arrest as a “wrongful detainment,” signaling U.S. officials would ramp up efforts to obtain her release rather than wait for the Russian legal system to play out.

Griner, a seven-time WNBA all-star for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested in February at an airport outside Moscow. Russian authorities allege that she illegally brought vape cartridges containing hashish oil into the country, a crime that could carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years. Griner was returning to Russia to rejoin UMMC Ekaterinburg, where she plays during the WNBA offseason.

Griner, 31, appeared at Friday’s hearing outside Moscow handcuffed and wearing an orange WNBA hoodie that mostly hid her face. Her lawyer, Alexander Boykov, said in a video published by the Associated Press that he believes the relatively short extension of her detainment could be a signal her case will come to trial soon.

In a statement provided to The Washington Post on Friday, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said that representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow attended Griner’s hearing and were able to speak with her and that she is “doing as well as can be expected in these circumstances.”

“We do believe that we can best and most effectively achieve potentially successful outcomes if we do have space to conduct private conversations. We are closely engaged on this case and in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team.”

The State Department did not directly address a question about the veracity of the Tass report of a potential Griner-for-Bout swap, which has not been confirmed by any American news outlets.

However, experts on Russian-American relations cautioned the report should not be taken at face value and could be a ploy by the Kremlin to ramp up pressure on U.S. authorities.

“Bout has always been a high priority for Russia, so [the Tass report] doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Brian Whitmore, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and assistant professor at the University of Texas Arlington’s McDowell Center for Global Studies. “My first reaction is it’s just signaling or wishful thinking on the part of Russians. … The question is what sort of signaling is the Kremlin doing here. A news report like that doesn’t appear in Tass by accident. They’re either trying to signal something, or something is really in the works.”

Despite U.S.-Russia relations being at their lowest point since the Cold War as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the countries managed to carry out a surprise swap of prisoners last month, with former Marine Trevor Reed exchanged for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted in U.S. federal court of smuggling cocaine.

Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” is in the middle of a 25-year federal prison sentence for smuggling arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for use against U.S. forces. Arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the United States, Bout was convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

This month, the Biden administration characterized Griner’s arrest as a “wrongful detainment,” an official designation that indicates it will no longer wait for the WNBA star’s case to proceed through the Russian legal system and will take more aggressive steps to negotiate her release.

Brittney Griner was ‘wrongfully detained.’ What happens now?

Signifying Griner’s detainment as “wrongful” means the U.S. government may consider her arrest to be “solely or substantially because he or she is a United States national,” according to the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, which Congress passed in 2020 to codify how the U.S. government handles international kidnapping and detention cases. The “wrongful” designation also could be applied if the U.S. government has doubts about the credibility or fairness of the jailing country’s judicial system or if it believes the U.S. prisoner is not receiving humane treatment.

The designation also could mean the U.S. government believes Griner was arrested so Russia can extract concessions from the United States, which has imposed heavy sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Many WNBA players play in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League during the WNBA offseason, both for financial reasons and for the chance to compete against the world’s top players. Griner has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg for the past six seasons.

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