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Brittney Griner And The Labyrinth Of Wrongful Detainment

Brittney Griner
Mike Mattina/Getty Images

The American public first heard on March 5 that Brittney Griner had been detained at a Moscow airport. The Russian Federal Customs Service released a Feb. 17 video of the WNBA star, who was in the country to play for the team UMMC Ekaterinburg, taken moments before she was arrested for having vape cartridges containing hashish oil. The news broke after Russia had invaded Ukraine. It wasn’t until May 3 that the U.S. State Department officially reclassified Griner as wrongfully detained. While the reclassification did not change her status in Russia, the State Department’s decision changed how her case would be handled on American soil. Instead of relying on Russia’s judicial process to determine Griner’s fate, the U.S. government would now negotiate to bring the basketball star home.

But the reclassification did not automatically release Griner. This past Saturday marked her 100th day in detention; last week, her wife Cherelle went on Good Morning America to call on President Joe Biden to bring her home. Meanwhile, the Russian legal process has shifted without notice. When the announcement that Griner was wrongfully detained first broke, she had a court hearing scheduled for May 19. But on May 13, her lawyer Alexander Boykov said the court had extended her pre-trial detention by one month. This wasn’t the first time that had happened; Griner had received two more months of detention in March. Her next court hearing will ostensibly take place on June 18, unless her detention is extended again, which is typical in these cases

In the early days of Griner’s detention, the WNBA heeded advice from the State Department to remain quiet in the hope that her case could be resolved discreetly. But the State Department’s reclassification broke open a unique test for the WNBA, a league that has thoughtfully organized for years to enact change off the basketball court.

As soon as I heard the news about Brittney Griner, I was desperate for more information. I had followed her basketball career since her college days at Baylor, and admired when she spoke openly about how the school and then-head coach Kim Mulkey urged her and other players to keep their sexual orientations private. While the rallying cry from the WNBA to free Griner now includes the message “We Are BG,” I’ve long believed that she’s a singular force. 

Starting in March, I went looking for answers—wherever I could find them. That’s how I found the only group of people willing to speak out, even in the earliest days of Griner’s arrest: the world of wrongful detainment advocates, family members, and former prisoners. I spent hours talking to them and learning from them. They provided clarifying insights into an issue that can seem labyrinthine.

Each wrongful detainment case is distinctly difficult to parse, but they all begin with an arrest. One moment, a visitor deplanes from an overseas flight, wakes up to attend a friend’s wedding, or posts a photo to social media. In the next, they are swept into custody. This is how experts described the practice of “hostage diplomacy” to me: a country detains a foreign citizen without warning, in order to extract concessions or political gain from another government. Wrongful detainment cases like these use human beings as bargaining chips.

Perhaps the greatest tool of hostage diplomacy is the wielding of “due process,” the promise of a country’s sovereign legal system as a kind of trojan horse. When Griner’s pre-trial detention was delayed by another month, the announcement elicited shock in some circles; an article on Jezebel called the news “unthinkable.” For experts I spoke to, the delay was wrenching yet unsurprising. 

“These cases are not actually about legalities,” said Jonathan Franks, a crisis management consultant who has helped bring home numerous wrongful detainees from countries including Russia and Iran. “Wrongful detentions are not resolved with judicial outcomes. Period.”

When Franks saw the images of Griner slouched in handcuffs, led past cameras by Russian government officials, he saw a familiar kind of playacting. If Griner’s trial were to take place next month, rather than another delay, the legal process would still continue as a facade.

“This is not a court,” Franks said. “This is a dinner theater, and a puppeteer is controlling the outcome from above.”

This is what WNBA players are going up against: not a malevolent team owner, or an ignorant politician, but a faceless court system, with little information or relief in its decisions. And the fight against it is involuntary. 

"You don't choose wrongful detainment, it chooses you," said Cynthia Loertscher, director of research at the James W. Foley Foundation. "And it chooses you hard." Loertscher runs a database with detailed information on over 200 wrongful detainment cases, has interviewed hundreds of “hostage family” members (as they call themselves), and writes the Foley Foundation’s annual report on U.S. hostage policy. Loertscher knows that every case of wrongful detainment is distinct; there is no singular solution.

“If someone ever says, there’s one way to get hostages out, that there’s just one way to do it, then they don’t know what they’re talking about,” she told me. “And if we’re not willing to learn about the realities of cases that came before, how are we going to get an American out now?”

What Loertscher does know is that bringing wrongful detainees home often requires drastic solutions, like prisoner swaps or the lifting of international sanctions. It also takes navigating a maze of interconnected government bureaus, complicated policies, and the top-level interests of the White House, sometimes for years. Currently, 59 Americans including Griner are wrongfully detained abroad, most of them without celebrity. No one knows the intricacies of their cases better than their own families, who work tirelessly to bring them home. These loved ones never intended to become advocates in the public eye. This includes Sarah Moriarty, the daughter of Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who was captured in Iran in 2007 after traveling there on an unauthorized mission for the CIA.

“At first, we had no clue how to even reach out to our congressmen and senators to get meetings,” she said to me. “We had to figure it out.” Levinson’s family didn’t know then that he would become the longest-held American hostage in history. As she reflected on those early days, Moriarty said it was hard to figure out who was working in her father’s best interests.

“It was that torment of, Who do I listen to, who do I trust?” she said. “You want to be vocal, but the government says not to. And you feel like you should trust them completely because they’re the government, they do this all the time.”

After 13 years, Moriarty and her family finally received evidence from U.S. officials that Levinson had died while in captivity. They still haven’t been able to hold a funeral for him or properly say goodbye, but they have lobbied to change the playbook for wrongful detainment cases. In 2020, the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act was passed into law, expanding the tools available to the American government to free wrongfully detained Americans abroad, including the permanent installation of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA). Led by appointee Roger Carstens, SPEHA plays a critical role in negotiating the release of wrongful detainees, including Griner. 

In the world of wrongful detainment, loved ones of those imprisoned take on a constant and exhausting kind of advocacy. “It’s hard to find families that haven’t been financially devastated by a wrongful detention case,” says Franks. He’s seen families drain their savings, attend their loved one’s trial, and sometimes pay out of pocket to ensure their loved one has food and water in prison. While it’s impossible to know which tactics will necessarily work to get them home, we can point to a recent strategy that was effective: the case of Trevor Reed. 

In August 2019, Reed was arrested in Moscow for assaulting two police officers, accusations that he has always denied. The Marine veteran was accused of attacking the officers and grabbing their car’s steering wheel on the drive to the station, even though video evidence showed that hadn’t happened. In 2020, he was convicted and sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. He spent a total of 985 days in detention.

After over two years of waiting for action, Reed’s parents began publicly and defiantly calling for his release. This past March, Paula and Joey Reed requested a private meeting with President Biden. After the president failed to show up for their meeting, the Reeds appeared on TV networks and demonstrated outside the White House until Biden finally invited them in. They had support from Franks, who served as their family spokesperson. “We weren’t delicate,” he said. “We broke things.”

A month later, the president unexpectedly signed off on a high-profile prisoner swap, in which Reed would return to the U.S. in exchange for a Russian pilot sentenced on cocaine trafficking charges. “When the noise got loud enough, Trevor Reed came home,” Franks said.

Reed’s return on April 27 was a jolting realization of what was possible. But in the world of wrongful detainment, the triumph of bringing one American home eventually leads to the question of why another has to continue to suffer. 

Griner is not the only American wrongfully detained in Russia today. Paul Whelan, a Canadian-born American citizen who was a security director for a Michigan-based auto parts supplier, has been in the country for four years, and was sentenced in a closed-door trial to 16 years in prison for espionage. During Reed’s return home, he told his parents he felt “horrible” when he learned that Whelan wasn’t with him. As he received medical care in the U.S., Reed urged his family to join another protest outside the White House with a coalition of hostage families campaigning for their loved ones. That was a day after the State Department reclassified Griner.

In recent years, WNBA players have effectively used collective action to push for issues outside of basketball. They’ve organized campaigns to protest police brutality, successfully revolted against one team’s Republican co-owner and supported her opponent in a Senate race. But the issue of wrongful detainment presents a new challenge. 

The campaign to bring Brittney Griner home is growing, with wide support from across the WNBA, as well as NBA commissioner Adam Silver. This season, there are league-wide floor decals with her name and number at each game, and players are often seen in pregame outfits wearing her gear. Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns also showed their support during the NBA playoffs. Each day, Breanna Stewart of the Seattle Storm has sent a tweet pushing for the White House to bring Griner home.

These efforts are a good start, but the lesson to take away from Trevor Reed’s case is that it’s more effective to speak where you can’t be ignored. One person in the world of wrongful detainment, requesting anonymity, recently told me, “The thing is, working together really well with the government often coincides with no progress in your loved one’s case.” It’s for that reason that this movement needs to exert pressure on Biden and the White House to do whatever it takes to bring Griner home. For Trevor Reed, this took fearless campaigning by his parents and continuous attention from the media.

The WNBPA seems to have picked up on the Reed family’s strategy. Over the weekend, the union released a powerful statement urging the public to speak out, and introducing a specific request: that President Biden meet with Cherelle Griner. It’s a tangible next step beyond just making noise or wearing a sweatshirt, something that many wrongful detainment families also desperately want. What I’ve learned from talking to these families and experts is that no matter what, we cannot let the U.S. government off the hook for bringing Americans home safely. 

“I just keep hearing that [Biden] has the power,” Cherelle said in a Good Morning America interview last week. “She’s a political pawn, so if they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it.”

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