The U.S. government has reclassified its designation of WNBA star—and jailed American citizen—Brittney Griner to wrongfully detained. The move, first reported by ESPN, means the State Department will attempt to negotiate her release from Russian custody regardless of whether Griner is found guilty of drug charges.
The U.S. is therefore no longer waiting for Griner’s case to work through the Russian legal system. Given the heightened level of distrust between the two countries, the U.S. has obvious reason to question legal findings by Russian officials about U.S. citizens.
As an important distinction, the change in Griner’s status is from the lens of the U.S. government, not the Russian government. Griner’s standing in the Russian legal system remains perilous. She is accused of attempting to transport hashish oil in vape cartridges through Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow. Russia has especially strict and punishing drug laws.
Griner, who plays in Russia during the WNBA offseason, has already been detained for 75 days. She is expected to be formally charged on May 19. If Griner went to trial and was convicted, she could be sentenced to prison for up to 10 years. Conviction would be almost certain in that scenario. The conviction rate in Russia has been calculated at 99.75%.
In lieu of going to trial, Griner’s attorney could attempt to negotiate a plea deal and secure a reduced prison sentence. A better option for Griner: The U.S. negotiates her release, perhaps as part of a prisoner exchange.
To that end, Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, will now negotiate with his counterparts in Russia. Last week, the two countries swapped prisoners. Russia sent home former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who in 2020 was sentenced by a Russian court to nine years in prison for allegedly endangering police officers. In return, the U.S. released Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko, who in 2011 received a 20-year prison sentence for smuggling cocaine.
While the diplomatic reclassification is an encouraging development for Griner, she remains in Russian custody and won’t be released absent Russia’s blessing. Also, Americans detained in Russia have not had swift exits. Reed had been in custody since 2019. Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence at a maximum security prison in Russia for alleged espionage, has been in custody since 2018.