As the U.S. State Department on Saturday bluntly warned U.S. citizens to “depart Russia immediately,” Russian media reported that WNBA star Brittney Griner is in custody for an alleged drug offense.
Griner, 31, is accused of attempting to transport hashish oil in vape cartridges at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow. The Phoenix Mercury center and two-time U.S. Gold medalist, who also plays for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason, could reportedly face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Penn State Dickinson Law Professor William Butler, an expert on Russian law, international and comparative law, tells Sportico that “Russia has a zero tolerance of narcotics.” He stresses that the Russian Federal Customs Service’s statement, which has been translated as a “large-scale transportation of drugs,” is crucial. “This means,” Butler explains, “that she allegedly had enough with her to constitute a substantial amount. That does make the potential penalty more severe.”
The timing of the airport incident is unclear. The Russian government has released an undated video that appears to show Griner going through airport security with luggage. According to Meadowlark Media journalist Kate Fagan, Griner has been in custody for about three weeks. Russia’s invasion into Ukraine began on Feb. 24. Since the invasion began, flights departing Russia have been limited due in part to international restrictions.
If Griner is being detained for political reasons—or perhaps as a bargaining chip for a prisoner exchange—she would represent a likely target for Russian president Vladimir Putin and his government. In addition to being a high-profile American, Griner is openly gay, which gives her a disfavored status under Russian law.
Butler cautions that Griner’s detainment and the Russia-Ukraine conflict shouldn’t be automatically connected. He notes that Russia’s “general attitude towards narcotics” involves aggressive enforcement of drugs law, and that has been apparent long before the conflict began. Given that Griner has played in Russia since 2014, she was presumably aware of that circumstance, too.
The New York Times reports that Griner is the only WNBA player remaining in Russia. Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, has told ESPN that Griner has legal representation in Russia and the agent is in close contact with her family as well as league officials.
Under the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Consular Convention, Russia is obligated to allow representatives from the U.S. embassy to visit a detained American citizen. The visit is supposed to occur within four days. The U.S. State Department has complained in previous detainment situations that Russian authorities have not always adhered to the four-day requirement. Meanwhile, other high-profile Americans detained in Russia have sometimes struggled to communicate with the embassy. Paul Whelan, for example, has been denied access and is now serving a 16-year sentence at a maximum security prison in Russia for alleged espionage.