Will the US now jump through hoops to bring WNBA player Brittney Griner home?

As the WNBA season opens the U.S. government has reclassified Griner as “wrongfully detained,” and has brought another citizen home. One Northeastern expert explains how this changes her case. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Today, some of the best women’s basketball players in the United States will begin the 2022 WNBA season. But Phoenix Mercury player Brittney Griner will not be among them. Instead, she’ll be in a Russian prison, with no clear path home.

Griner was arrested at a Russian airport in February on charges of drug possession. She was in Russia to compete for a basketball league when hashish oil was found in her luggage, a crime that carries up to 10 years in prison there. While thousands of U.S. citizens are detained overseas each year, Griner’s arrest came on the heels of Russia’s initial military push into Ukraine, making her situation even more delicate.

Calling Brittney Griner wrongfully detained “opens up options for engagement in her case, including potential diplomatic options,” says Alexandra (Xander) Meise, associate teaching professor in the legal skills in social context program. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Until this week, Griner’s status—including the question of when she’ll be able to make it home—has been unclear as her case makes its way through the Russian criminal justice system. 

But now, her case has moved to a new stage, as U.S. officials announced on Tuesday that Griner has been reclassified as “wrongfully detained” by the Russian government. This, combined with the homecoming of another U.S. citizen in a prisoner exchange, may signal a new hope for Griner’s timely return.

For months, the United States responded to Griner’s arrest by simply waiting for her case to play out in the Russian justice system, which includes a hearing scheduled for May 19, according to ESPN.

This is standard practice when someone is arrested abroad, says Alexandra Meise, an associate teaching professor in the School of Law at Northeastern. “Countries generally do not interfere with the domestic legal processes of other countries,” she says.

While Meise can’t speculate on why the U.S. is reclassifying Griner’s case now, she says the shift “opens up options” for Griner. Now, the U.S. does not need to stand by and wait for Russia to resolve her case. Instead, “it opens up options for engagement in her case, including potential diplomatic options,” she says. International hostage negotiator and former ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson is on the case, ESPN reports. 

ESPN also reports that the media is now free to bring attention to Griner’s arrest. Until now, her story has not dominated news cycles in part due to concerns that creating a media firestorm would make her more valuable to Russia, and therefore make it more difficult to bring her home.

The development in Griner’s case comes as Trevor Reed, a former Marine who was detained in Russia since 2019, was brought home this week, CNN reports. Reed returned to the U.S. as part of a prisoner swap. Another U.S. citizen, Paul Whelan, has also been detained in Russia since 2018, according to CNN.

Reed was also a “wrongfully detained” citizen, says Meise. In a statement about Reed’s release, the U.S. Department of State said, “We also remain committed to securing the freedom of all U.S. nationals wrongfully detained abroad.”

Griner’s case has also brought to light the pay disparities in women’s basketball, as WNBA players like her tend to play overseas in order to supplement their incomes. Almost half of WNBA players took advantage of this during the offseason, the Associated Press reports.

As the WNBA kicks opens Friday, the league has announced that it will honor Griner by featuring her initials and number (42) on the sideline of every court. 

“As we begin the 2022 season, we are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball and in the community,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert. “We continue to work on bringing Brittney home and are appreciative of the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily challenging time.”

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