A Texas congresswoman has called for Russia to release Brittney Griner as fears grow Vladimir Putin could use the US basketball star as a pawn during the war in Ukraine.
The two-time Olympic champion has been detained by Russian customs authorities, who claim they discovered vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. The arrest took place last month and the 31-year-old faces up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of bringing drugs into Russia.
The situation comes as the US places sanctions on Russia after Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine last month.
“We know that there were some issues dealing with vape cartridges and other items but let me be very clear,” said Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents Griner’s hometown of Houston, Texas, in Congress. “Brittney Griner is a United States citizen, she was a guest in Russia… and I will be demanding her release from her.”
Lee said that Russia’s actions in Ukraine undermined their detention of Griner. “I do n’t want to disregard a sovereign nation but Putin has disregarded sovereign nations his entire service from him in this world,” Lee said. “Anyone that is killing and attacking and destroying Ukraine, a neighboring country that is not bothering them, has no right to hold Ms Griner. Period.”
Meanwhile, a former Pentagon official told Yahoo Sports she feared Griner could become a “high-profile hostage.”
“If we want her out of jail, Russia is going to have some terms,” said Evelyn Farkas, who served as the US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Ukraine from 2012 to 2015. “It could be a prisoner swap. They also could use it as an implicit threat or blackmail to get us to do something or not do something. Either way, they find it useful.”
In a statement to the Guardian, Griner’s agent Lindsay Colas said: “We are aware of the situation with Brittney Griner in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams, and the WNBA and NBA .
“As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are not able to comment further on the specifics of her case but can confirm that as we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remain our primary concern.”
The WNBA said in a release that Griner has the league’s “full support” and “our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States”.
Griner, like many of her fellow WNBA players, also competes in Russia during the league’s offseason. She has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2015, helping the Russian club to three domestic titles and EuroLeague Women championships in 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2021. Her annual salary of $1m with Ekaterinburg is far in excess of her earnings in the WNBA, where the maximum salary is $228,000.
Griner, at 6ft 9in center, is considered one of the best players in the world. She won gold medals with Team USA at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics, the WNBA title with the Phoenix Mercury in 2014 and has been named an WNBA All-Star seven times.