Steph Talbot of Australia, left, tries to score as Brittney Griner of the United States, center, blocks her during the Women's basketball World Cup final match between Australia and the U.S.A.
( AP Photo/Andres Gutierrez
Arun Venugopal: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Arun Venugopal in for Melissa Harris-Perry. Russian authorities have been holding WNBA star Brittney Griner in detention for more than 140 days. Last week in a handwritten letter to President Biden she said, "I'm terrified I might be here forever," and pleaded with him saying, "Please don't forget about me." Her WNBA family has not. At last night's All-Star Game, all of the players wore jerseys with her name and number on them.
Reporter: These players are literally saying, "We have your back."
Arun Venugopal: In February Griner was charged with drug possession by Russian authorities after police allegedly found vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage at a Russian airport. In May, the US State Department classified Griner is wrongfully detained, which moved her case under the purview of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. Last week Griner appeared in Russian court and pleaded guilty to the charges, but observers believe this may be part of a strategy on Griner's part to get a lighter sentence.
With me now to discuss is Dani Gilbert, a Fellow at the Dickey Centre for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. Dani, thank you for being here.
Dani: Thank you so much for having me.
Arun Venugopal: What do you make of Griner's guilty plea?
Dani: The most important thing to know about this guilty plea is that it doesn't change anything about the way that the US government will handle her case. As you mentioned, in May the State Department classified Griner as wrongfully detained, which essentially means that the US government thinks that there is something illegitimate about the way that the Russians have charged her and that they're handling her case, and that they're going to work behind the scenes to get her home. The US government still considers her wrongfully detained and is working on her recovery.
I can imagine a few different reasons why Brittney Griner may have entered that guilty plea. As her lawyer said, she wanted to come clean, it was inadvertent. She really wanted that integrity of being honest and showing the world that what she did was bring 0.7 grams of hash oil inadvertently, nothing like the international drug smuggling charge that the Russian government has placed on her case. There are, as you mentioned, strategic reasons that she may have entered this plea.
On the one hand, it might lessen her sentence or it might improve her conditions in the unbelievable situation of being in a Russian prison for this amount of time, or it might be something that's necessary for the negotiations to take place and a deal to get her home.
Arun Venugopal: Speaking of deals, there have been reports that Russia could ask for a prisoner swap with the US weapons trafficker Viktor Bout, who's serving a 25-year sentence in the US, for Griner. Bout was convicted of much more serious crimes than those Griner is accused of. Is this still a deal worth considering to bring Griner home?
Dani: The Russians really know what they're doing here. They're demonstrating to the world that hostage-taking works. That by arresting an American illegitimately they can make these egregious demands for the United States to release someone that the US government considered quite dangerous and arrested for his work over many years, aiding and abetting, providing weapons to insurgencies and dictators all over the world. The Russians have asked for Viktor Bout before in prior prisoner swaps for another American that came home, Trevor Reed, earlier this spring. It makes sense that the Russians have floated Viktor Bout as a demand for Griner's release.
I would imagine that the United States government is putting every conceivable option on the table and weighing the pros and cons. Given that the State-owned news agency in Russia has floated Viktor Bout, I'm sure that name is part of the discussion, but I also would imagine that the US government is trying to find alternatives. Other ways to bring Griner and Paul Whelan home - Paul Whelan's another American in prison in Russia right now - without releasing someone with a record like Viktor Bout.
Arun Venugopal: Let's talk about the letter that Brittney Griner wrote to President Biden last week. She wrote that she's afraid of being detained forever in Russia. Her wife said President Biden did respond to Griner's letter directly. Do you think his administration has done enough to reassure Griner family that they're taking her case seriously?
Dani: When Brittney Griner or any other American is detained in these kinds of conditions, there is nothing more important for that hostage or wrongful detainee and their family to focus on bringing that person home. She is in Russian prison, which is just an abominable position for someone to be in. A Black, gay American who doesn't speak Russian in a situation where she has no idea when she's going to come home. If you're in her position or her family's position, of course you are going to want to do everything to raise attention to that case, to pressure the White House to make any sort of deal to bring that person home.
Arun Venugopal: Let's talk about the attention here. Many of us who have been following this case at the same time, sincerely, being a WNBA star gets much less attention than, say, an NBA star. How significant and how true do you think that is?
Dani: There's been a lot of focus on her gender and saying if this were a male NBA player or a male athlete, that we would see a lot more attention to the case. Research suggests that it's not gender but another set of characteristics that will affect something like public attention and public sympathy for someone held in the same kind of condition as Brittney Griner. Those characteristics include her race, the fact that she's Black, her sexuality, that she's gay, and also the circumstances surrounding her arrest.
The fact that this entire ordeal is about a drug charge that she's now pled guilty to, a lot of Americans look at that and say, "Well, she is guilty. She shouldn't have been traveling there. She shouldn't have been carrying drugs with her," or things like that. That can really affect the way that the American public views these cases and thinks about US government support to bring someone home.
Arun Venugopal: ABC News reported over the weekend that former governor and diplomat Bill Richardson is planning to travel to Russia at some point in the next few weeks for talks on freeing Griner. Does that tell us anything about a potential timeline for Griner's release?
Dani: Timeline is difficult to know based on the travel. Often the Richardson Center will travel to a place where they're working on these kinds of negotiations at different points in the negotiation process, or hopefully when the release itself is happening. In the case of Trevor Reed, the American who was arrested in Russia in 2019 and came home a couple of months ago in May, the Richardson Center staff traveled to Moscow in February. If this case looks anything like that, then maybe a couple of months from now we could see Brittney Griner home. Hopefully, these negotiations are successful, and that she and Paul Whelan will be back on American soil quickly and safely.
Arun Venugopal: What are you watching for next in terms of Griner's detention?
Dani: It's a great question. I'm going to be paying attention to things like the announcement that Bill Richardson was traveling to Moscow, or if the US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, Roger Carstens, takes a similar trip. I would be interested in hearing about any other demands that the Russian government might be floating. They will never come out and explicitly say, "We're holding an American hostage and we want X, Y, Z thing in return," but the fact that they're floating their demands in the state-owned news agency means that those demands are coming from the top.
Any other prisoners that they might mention or concessions that they might be asking for from the US government, that could give us clues about how this whole case might resolve.
Arun Venugopal: Dani Gilbert is a Fellow at the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. Thanks so much, Dani.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.