What happens to an American imprisoned in Russia? For a WNBA star, the troubles have only just begun

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner was arrested weeks ago in Russia, charged with having illegal drugs in her luggage. The U.S. citizen could face 5-10 years in a Russian prison. AP Photo/Ralph Freso

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Americans getting arrested overseas happens way more than people think, to the tune of several thousand a year. More than 30% of the cases are drug-related. The majority are citizens held by foreign governments with whom the U.S. has strained diplomatic relations. 

Brittney Griner, arrested weeks ago in Russia on drug possession charges, is no ordinary U.S. citizen. She is regarded as one of the world’s best female basketball stars. The fact that she is being held in a country isolated from the world because of the war in Ukraine when diplomatic tensions could not be higher complicates the situation, says a Northeastern international human rights lawyer.

The timing of Griner’s arrest ‘could not be worse for her,’ says Alexandra Meise, an associate teaching professor in the School of Law and an international human rights lawyer. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“The timing could not be worse for her,” says Alexandra Meise, an associate teaching professor in the School of Law. She says that international standards call for Griner—or any American imprisoned overseas—to be allowed to communicate with a U.S. consular officer in the country they were arrested in.

But that hasn’t happened in Griner’s case, despite an arrest in mid-February, “and that’s very concerning because that is something that is expected,” Meise adds. 

According to a member of Congress from Griner’s home state of Texas, the U.S. embassy’s request for consular access to her has been denied for almost three weeks.

“However one measures the standard for what is prompt, three weeks is not prompt,” says Meise.

Members of Congress would agree.

“I do think that it’s really unusual that we’ve not been granted access to her from our embassy and our consular services,” Rep. Colin Allred, a Democrat from Texas who formerly played college football, told ESPN

Meise says Griner may have a Russian lawyer, but the U.S. government does not provide legal counsel for citizens who are arrested overseas or recommend a particular attorney.

“It’s not that the embassy is going to provide you with a lawyer,” she adds. “The embassy, the consular officials, they have the ability to communicate with you, but they will not provide legal advice.”

The State Department issued a long and sternly-worded warning to Americans about traveling to Russia.

“Russian security services have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence,” the statement read.

The travel advisory added that Russian officials may “unreasonably” delay U.S. consular assistance to detained U.S. citizens and warned about the dangers of working in the country: “U.S. citizens should avoid travel to Russia to perform work.”

Griner, a two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist and player for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, was on her way to Russia to suit up for a local team when airport authorities allegedly found hashish oil vaping cartridges in her luggage. She could face between five and 10 years behind bars for having drugs that are illegal in Russia, a serious crime in the country.

U.S. lawmakers have described the Russian criminal justice system as opaque, a distinction from the U.S. system where the focus is on transparency, says Meise. “In our system, we are mindful of the importance of sunlight as a disinfectant.”

“We hold hearings in public absent a very particular reason not to do so. We have investigations by the police, and the police are a separate entity from the prosecution. That is unlike many other systems,” she says.

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