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WNBA Center Brittney Griner Is Detained in Russia


WASHINGTON — Russia said on Saturday that it had detained an American basketball player in Moscow on drug charges, entangling a U.S. citizen’s fate in the dangerous confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine.

The Russian Federal Customs Service said that its officials had detained the player after finding vape cartridges that contained hashish oil in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow.

The Customs Service said in a statement that the player had won two Olympic gold medals with the United States, but it did not release the player’s name. The Russian news agency Tass, citing a law enforcement source, identified the player as Brittney Griner, a seven-time W.N.B.A. All-Star center for the Phoenix Mercury. Griner, 31, won gold medals with the U.S. women’s national basketball team in 2021 and 2016.

In a statement, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, did not dispute reports of her client’s detention. “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 W.N.B.A. and N.B.A.,” she said.

Griner’s detention comes at the most dangerous moment in U.S.-Russia relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis, as the Biden administration leads dozens of nations in imposing crushing sanctions on Russia’s economy and political elites. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Saturday that the sanctions were “akin to a declaration of war” on his country.

Earlier on Saturday, the State Department, which for weeks had warned Americans against traveling to Russia, released an updated advisory urging U.S. citizens to leave the country immediately, citing the invasion in Ukraine, the “potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials” and the limited ability of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to assist American citizens in the country.

“I obviously don’t know the circumstances of her detention, but Griner’s arrest should serve as a wake-up call to all Americans in Russia,” said Michael A. McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow. “Get out. Shut down your businesses now.”

The Russian Customs Service released a video of a traveler at the airport who appeared to be Griner going through security. The video showed an individual removing a package from the traveler’s bag.

The screening at the airport occurred in February, according to the Customs Service, raising the possibility that Griner has been in custody for at least several days.

According to the statement, a criminal case has been opened into the large-scale transportation of drugs, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years behind bars in Russia. The basketball player was taken into custody while the investigation was ongoing, the officials said.

The incident comes at a moment of intense repression within Russia, as Putin cracks down on internal dissent to a degree analysts say they have not seen since the days of the Soviet Communist Party.

In recent years, U.S. officials have accused Russia of detaining and sentencing American citizens on trumped-up charges. The detainment of a high-profile American could even be an effort by Russia to gain leverage in the political and economic standoff with Washington over the Ukraine invasion.

A State Department spokesman said only that the United States was aware of reports that Griner had been arrested and that the United States provided consular services to Americans arrested overseas.

Colas, Griner’s agent, said in her statement, “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 W.N.B.A. said in a statement that Griner “has the W.N.B.A.’s full support and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States.”

The Phoenix Mercury; U.S.A. Basketball, which oversees the Olympics teams; and the W.N.B.A. players’ union also released statements expressing support for Griner.

Many W.N.B.A. players compete in Russia, where salaries are more lucrative, during the American league’s off-season. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years.

Griner is set to earn $227,900 with the Mercury in the 2022 season, according to Her Hoop Stats, just shy of the W.N.B.A.’s maximum salary, $228,094. Some players have made substantially more money with Russian teams, like Griner’s Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi, who reports said earned around $1.5 million with UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2015.

Some American players began making plans to leave Russia following the country’s invasion of Ukraine, and a W.N.B.A. spokeswoman said on Saturday that all W.N.B.A. players besides Griner were out of Russia and Ukraine.

Griner, a native of Houston, became a transformative talent in college basketball throughout her celebrated tenure at Baylor University.

Before Griner, only a handful of women players had ever dunked in a college game. Griner’s dunks became anticipated during her time at Baylor that included guiding the Lady Bears to a national championship in 2012.

The Mercury selected Griner with the top pick in the 2013 draft and paired her with Taurasi, another of the game’s top players. Phoenix captured the W.N.B.A.’s title in 2014.





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