WASHINGTON — Russia said on Saturday it had detained an American basketball player — later identified as Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner — on drug charges, tangling the fate of an American citizen in the dangerous showdown between Russia and the West about Ukraine.
Russia’s Federal Customs Service said its officials arrested the player after finding vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow, and released a video of it. a traveler going through airport security who appeared to be Griner.
Customs did not release the player’s name, but Russian news agency Tass, citing a law enforcement source, identified the player as Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star center for the Mercury.
In a statement, Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, did not dispute reports of his client’s detention. “We are aware of Brittney Griner’s situation in Russia and are in close contact with her, her legal representation in Russia, her family, her teams and the WNBA and NBA,” she said.
Griner’s detention comes at the most dangerous time in US-Russian relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis, as the Biden administration leads dozens of nations in imposing crushing sanctions on Russia’s economy and its political elites. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said on Saturday that the sanctions amounted to a “declaration of war” against his country.
Also on Saturday, the State Department, which for weeks had warned Americans against traveling to Russia, issued an updated advisory urging American citizens to leave the country immediately, citing the invasion of Ukraine, the “potential for harassment of US citizens by Russian government security”. officials” and the limited ability of the US Embassy in Moscow to assist US citizens in the country.
“I obviously don’t know the circumstances of his detention, but Griner’s arrest should serve as a wake-up call to all Americans in Russia,” said Michael A. McFaul, former US ambassador to Moscow. “Get out. Close your businesses now.
Video released by the Russian customs service showed a traveler going through security, followed by footage of someone examining a package that appeared to be from the traveller’s bag. The check at the airport took place in February, according to the customs service, which suggests that Griner, 31, has been in detention for at least several days.
The customs service said a criminal case had been opened for large-scale transport of drugs, which carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison in Russia. Hash oil, or hash oil, is a marijuana concentrate that contains a high concentration of the plant’s main psychoactive ingredient, THC. It can be consumed in several ways, but it is usually sold in cartridges used in vapers.
The incident comes amid an intense crackdown in Russia, as Putin is cracking down on internal dissent to a degree analysts say he hasn’t seen since the days of the Soviet Communist Party.
In recent years, US officials have accused Russia of detaining and convicting US citizens on false charges. The detention 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 invasion of Ukraine.
A State Department spokesperson 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.
The State Department also confirmed on Saturday that the United States, which has closed its airspace to Russian aviation, allowed a Russian government charter plane to land in the Washington area to pick up Russian mission employees. at the United Nations who were expelled from the United States. United States last week on suspicion of espionage.
Colas, Griner’s agent, said in his statement: “As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are unable to comment further on the specifics of his case, but we can confirm that, while As we work to get her home, her mental and physical health remains our primary concern.”
The WNBA said in a statement that Griner “has the full support of the WNBA and our top priority is his speedy and safe return to the United States.”
While it’s unclear whether Russia might have targeted Griner as an American or viewed her detention as a useful negotiating tool with Washington, a Democratic member of Congress described her case that way on Saturday.
“This follows a pattern of Russia wrongfully detaining and imprisoning American citizens, including Trevor Reed,” said lawmaker Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas. wrote on Twitter. “American citizens are not political pawns. Brittney, Trevor and the other Americans must be returned safe and sound.
In 2020, a Moscow court sentenced Reed, a former US Marine, to nine years in prison for assaulting and endangering the lives of two police officers, charges his family and supporters say are fraudulent and politically motivated.
Earlier the same year, another former Marine, Paul Whelan, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage in a trial closed to the public.
The Mercury, the WNBA players’ union and USA Basketball, which oversees Olympic teams, also released statements expressing their support for Griner.
Many WNBA players compete in Russia, where salaries are more lucrative, during the American League’s offseason. Griner played for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years.
Griner is expected to earn about $228,000 with the Mercury in the 2022 season, according to the Her Hoop Stats website, just short of the league’s maximum salary. Some players have made significantly more money with Russian teams, such as Griner’s Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi, who earned around $1.5 million with UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2015.
Some American players began considering leaving Russia after the country invaded Ukraine, and a WNBA spokeswoman said Saturday that all WNBA players except Griner were outside Russia and Ukraine.
Griner, a Houston native, became a transformative talent in college basketball throughout her famous tenure at Baylor, where she was a three-time All-American.
Before Griner, only a handful of women had ever dived into a college game. Griner’s dunks became highly anticipated during her time at Baylor, where she guided the Lady Bears to a national championship in 2012. She is the only player in NCAA history, male or female, to raise at least 2,000 points and 500 blocked shots.
The Mercury selected Griner with the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft and paired her with Taurasi, another of the game’s best players, and the team won the WNBA title in 2014.
Griner went on to win gold medals with the United States Women’s National Basketball Team in 2016 and 2021. She is one of the few players to have won a college championship, WNBA and Euroleague titles, and a Olympic gold medal.
Aishvarya Kavi contributed report.