Brittney Griner’s celebrity also makes her a ‘valuable political pawn’

Risk for the WNBA star, who is gay, grows each day she is detained in Russia, where LGBTQ people face discrimination and violence.

By Jill Ament & Caroline CovingtonMarch 22, 2022 1:25 pm, , ,

Russian officials have said that Texan and WNBA star Brittney Griner will now be detained until May. Griner was arrested at an airport in Russia in February for allegedly carrying hashish oil in her luggage. Griner’s family, as well as American officials haven’t said much about her detention, most likely to not provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin. But that’s also contributed to a lack of attention to Griner’s case. And the safety  of Griner, who is gay, is at risk in a country known to be hostile toward LGBTQ people.

Valena Beety, a law professor and deputy director of the Academy for Justice at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, tells Texas Standard that while the Russian government says Griner was arrested for having vape pods containing hashish oil, the country also has a history of planting criminal evidence on activists or high-profile people it wants to detain for political purposes. And Russia can detain prisoners for as long as it wants.

Listen to the interview with Beety in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: You’ve been writing about how the U.S. should be extremely concerned about Griner’s detention. What are the most concerning aspects of how she was arrested and her subsequent detention, from your perspective?

Valena Beety: Russia and Russian police can detain a suspect indefinitely. So we have no idea how long this is going to go on for. I write about wrongful convictions and wrongful arrests, and I’m concerned about the validity of this arrest. We don’t know if it’s accurate or not. We don’t know if Russian police planted the evidence, which they have done on activists, on high-profile targets. We just don’t know what’s going on here, but we do know she’s being detained in a prison.

Does Griner face any extra danger because she is gay?

Absolutely. We know that it’s illegal to even speak positively of same sex-relationships in Russia. We also know that in Chechnya, there was a purge of LGBTQ individuals in the past few years – detention and killings. So her identity as a gay woman definitely puts her at risk.

You also argue that because of her cultural prominence, as a WNBA star, her situation isn’t getting as much public attention as it should, is that correct?

It’s a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, she has some sort of a protection through being high profile. On the other hand, this is what makes her such a valuable political pawn. And so, understandably, our government is trying to remain quiet about this because our only path forward for Brittney Griner right now is diplomatic relations to bring her home.

Is that a typical diplomatic strategy?

Brittney Griner is very valuable being in Russian custody, so it depends on what the Russian government would want. Perhaps they want a trade in prisoners. Perhaps they want some other concession from the United States government right now, and particularly with the invasion of Ukraine, there could be a lot on the line with this. So again, I understand the government being mum about this, but it’s a very intense situation.

Is there any precedent for a situation like Griner’s?

She was detained right when the Russian soldiers were arming up around the borders of Ukraine, and hasn’t been really seen since. We do know there are other Americans who have been detained in Russia and have not been released, and there’s been negotiations ongoing for years. And of course, those relations fall apart when we are having so many sanctions against Russia for their invasion of Ukraine. Again, this all heightens the importance of Brittney Griner attention right now.

Do you believe the U.S. State Department is doing everything it can to secure her release?

I hope so. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the case. Hillary Clinton has spoken out about this. Legislators in Congress, particularly from Texas, have spoken out about this. I do think there’s increasing pressure every week that passes that Brittney Griner continues to be detained.

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