There are many details we still don’t know about WNBA star Brittney Griner’s arrest in Russia. But there’s a lot we can learn from the experiences of Americans who were detained there in the past.
The country’s strict drug laws also offer some indication of what could be next for Griner, experts say.
Some experts who spoke with CNN were quick to tie Griner’s arrest to the bigger geopolitical picture, and warned she’s likely to be used as a bargaining chip in the days to come. Others say it’s premature to draw any connection between the drug charges Griner’s facing and tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Here’s what experts say are some key things to keep in mind:
Drug laws in Russia are strict
Russia’s federal customs agency says a criminal case is underway, and state media reports say Griner is accused of drug smuggling after cannabis oil was allegedly found in her suitcase at a Moscow airport.
Those are serious accusations, given how strict Russia’s drug laws are, says William E. Butler, a professor at Penn State Dickinson Law.
“Russia has, and has had for many decades, a zero tolerance attitude towards narcotic substances, so it’s a serious offense,” he says.
The crime Griner is accused of carries a possible punishment of 5-10 years in prison, Butler says, in addition to the possible imposition of a fine.
False accusations are a possibility
But it’s also important to consider another possibility, says Peter Maggs, a law professor at the University of Illinois and an expert on Russia’s civil code.
“There have been a lot of allegations of planting of substances on people, particularly on the part of human rights advocates,” he says.
And a February State Department warning urged Americans to avoid travel to Russia, noting the risk of arrest.
“Russian security services have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence,” the warning said.
Prison conditions have come under fire
Authorities haven’t said where Griner is being held, and her family has been tight-lipped about the details of the case. But her arrest has brought renewed attention to two other Americans detained in Russia – Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed.
Both men and their families have denied the charges against them and criticized their treatment while in custody.
Whelan, a former US Marine, was detained at a Moscow hotel in 2018 and arrested on espionage charges, which he has consistently denied. He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial widely denounced as unfair by US officials. In a call with CNN in June, Whelan described the grim conditions of the remote labor camp where he spends his days working in a clothing factory that he called a “sweatshop,” and said, “Getting medical care here is very difficult.”
Reed, a former US Marine detained in Russia since 2019, was sentenced to nine years in prison in July 2020 for endangering the “life and health” of Russian police officers after a night of drinking, according to state-run news agency TASS. US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan called the trial “theater of the absurd” after Reed’s 2020 sentencing.
In recent calls to his parents from the Russian prison where he’s being held, Reed said he had been coughing up blood, had intermittent fevers and had pain in his chest, according to his father – and the family is concerned he has tuberculosis. In a statement Thursday, Reed’s parents said they were concerned he will be sent to solitary confinement rather than to medical care.
“It’s hard to explain how panicked we are after hearing his voice today,” his parents said.
CNN has reached out to the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service for comment.
Nick Daniloff, an American journalist who was detained in the USSR in 1986, told CNN he has questions about where Griner is being held.
“The Russians seized her and she’s incommunicado. … It’s very possible that she’s being held in the sort of a prison where I was taken – an isolation prison,” Daniloff says.
Daniloff, who was imprisoned for weeks in isolated conditions while officials negotiated his release, says he believes his roommate in prison was tasked with informing authorities about his behavior – and Griner could find herself in a similar situation.
Griner should have access to a lawyer and consular representatives
Russian law guarantees Griner access to counsel and consular representatives, Butler says.
“She’s under what I understand to be investigative detention. … She will have had the right to counsel. She will have had the right to contact the embassy, the American consulate, she will have had the right to be visited,” he says.