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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Brittney Griner’s circle turns to a common strategy: Silence

W.N.B.A. players like Brittney Griner, left, and Liz Cambage, right, often spend their off-seasons competing for teams abroad.

By Jonathan Abrams and Tania Ganguli

The detention of WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia on drug charges has left her supporters searching for a road map to a resolution in what could be an especially dangerous situation during the war in Ukraine.

An exact parallel is hard to come by, but a situation nearly five years ago, in which three UCLA basketball players were accused of crimes while in China, blended sports, international diplomacy and a desire for secrecy in a way that echoes Griner’s situation as efforts to bring her home continue quietly.

“It is an extremely sensitive situation,” said Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, who said he was working with the State Department to have Griner released. He added, “What we’re trying to do now, of course, is be helpful and not do anything that’ll place Brittney in any kind of danger or make her situation worse.”

Griner’s attorney in Russia contacted the U.S. Embassy shortly after she was detained Feb. 17, Allred said, after Russian Federal Customs Service officials said they had found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. Allred said Russian authorities have denied the State Department’s request that consular officials meet with Griner.

“It’s already a violation of international norms and the way these things are handled when they happen to Americans abroad,” Allred said.

Griner, 31, a center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, is said to be facing up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the drug charges. Many WNBA players supplement their salaries by playing internationally during the offseason. Griner has played for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2014. Those close to her, and officials from the WNBA and its players union, have said little about Griner’s situation beyond that they support her and hope to have her return home safely.

The length of her detention so far is not unusual given the charges, said Tom Firestone, an attorney at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, who was the resident legal adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow while working for the Justice Department. Russia’s customs service said in a statement last week that it had opened a criminal case into the large-scale transportation of drugs.

“Russia has not had liberalization in its cannabis laws the same way we have in the United States,” Firestone said.

Russian prosecutors have two months to conduct a preliminary investigation and build a case, but can receive extensions beyond that, Firestone said. Getting out on bail is difficult for people charged with narcotics offenses and will be especially so for Griner since she is not a Russian citizen, Firestone said.

“They should get consular access certainly,” Firestone said. “When an American is arrested overseas the first source of assistance from the U.S. government is the consulate at the U.S. Embassy.”

What role, if any, UMMC Ekaterinburg is playing in Griner’s case is unknown, but local ties can be crucial in situations like these, as they were for the three UCLA basketball players, LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, who were detained in China for shoplifting in November 2017 before a preseason game.

“We were in Hangzhou, the headquarters of Alibaba, who was our host for the tournament, and they had a deep and nuanced appreciation for the local laws, customs,” said Larry Scott, who was then the commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference. He added, “And it was important to take guidance from them in addition to working with U.S. government officials and others.”

Ball, Hill and Riley were in custody for less than a day before being released on bail. They returned to the United States about a week later and apologized publicly for the theft.

Ball, who is the brother of NBA players Lonzo and LaMelo Ball, was the most well-known of the three UCLA players. “I’d like to start off by saying sorry for stealing from the stores in China,” LiAngelo Ball said at a news conference after returning to the United States. “I’m a young man, but it’s not an excuse for making a really stupid decision.”

Scott also said the remorse shown by the players was instrumental in their being allowed to return swiftly. “They were apologetic for it and expressed that,” he said. “There’s an element of saving face involved for local authorities to understand foreigners coming in respect local laws and the local culture.”

It is unclear whether Griner had drugs in her luggage, and American officials have repeatedly accused Russia of detaining U.S. citizens for specious reasons. But those close to Griner appear to be following one of the strategies employed by those surrounding Ball, Hill and Riley in 2017: creating as little public noise as possible.

“We felt that it would be counterproductive for there to be a lot of statements from us or from UCLA or from the families of the student athletes,” Scott said. “We felt that quiet diplomacy behind the scenes was the best course of action, and so we were very careful not to be talking a lot about the situation in the media or otherwise.”

The incident for the UCLA players in China, like Griner’s situation, also had a political backdrop, as it occurred during former President Donald Trump’s visit to China for trade talks. He later took credit for securing the players’ speedy release, a claim Ball’s father, LaVar, has denied publicly.

It is unclear whether Russia targeted Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, for leverage against the United States, which has led a widespread effort to impose harsh sanctions on Russia and its elite oligarchs during its invasion of Ukraine.

Firestone said the charges against Griner would be serious regardless of external circumstances, but the increasingly frosty political climate between Russia and the United States could complicate Griner’s situation in several ways. In addition to potentially interfering with her ability to get consular access, it could prevent a potential prisoner exchange, which could allow Griner to return to the United States.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow also reduced its available services after the Kremlin ordered the embassy to stop employing Russians last year, which led to a 75% reduction in its staff, according to The Associated Press.

Griner’s detention, Allred said, is removed from the overall conflict between the two countries. But Allred also acknowledged that Russian authorities were diverting from standard practice.

“The fact that she’s been held since Feb. 17 and that the State Department has not been granted consular access, even though they’ve requested that, is very unusual and extremely concerning,” Allred said.

Allred declined to comment when asked where Griner was being detained.

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