Will Russian prisoner exchange affect the status of detained WNBA star Brittney Griner?

A basketball player.
Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner pauses on the court during a game on Sept. 3, 2019, in Phoenix.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

Brittney Griner remains detained in Russia, and it’s unclear how an unexpected prisoner exchange between the United States and Russia that freed Marine veteran Trevor Reed on Wednesday will affect the status of the WNBA star.

Griner has been detained in Russia since mid-February.

The deal announced by the U.S. and Russia involving Reed, an American imprisoned for nearly three years, would have been a notable diplomatic maneuver even in times of peace. It was all the more surprising because it was done as Russia’s war with Ukraine has driven relations with the U.S. to their lowest point in decades.


Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, was arrested in Russia on suspicion of possessing a cannabis derivative legal in much of the world. The offense can mean up to 10 years in prison. Experts have predicted she could get much less if convicted.

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Like many top WNBA players, Griner plays overseas as a way to supplement her income. She was returning to the country after the Russian League, in which she plays, was taking a break for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournament.


It is unclear whether Reed’s release will have any bearing on Griner’s case. It seems unlikely to have any immediate effect in part because the Biden administration played down the idea of a broader rapprochement with Moscow at a time when Russia is at war with Ukraine.


Griner’s case is at a much different status than that of Reed, who had been convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison. Griner’s case has yet to wind through the court system, with the evidence and facts still unclear.


The U.S. had assessed Reed and another American, Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan, to have been unjustly detained by Russia, and officials had pressed Moscow for their release. They have not yet made a similar determination about Griner, meaning that their role — at least overtly — is generally confined to ensuring she has access to consular services while behind bars.


The 6-foot-9 Griner is being held in a detention facility near Moscow. She has been meeting with her lawyers regularly and had a visit with a U.S. Embassy official last month to check on her condition.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said last month that Griner appeared “to be in good condition.” Price did not identify the official who had been granted consular access to Griner.


Authorities have extended Griner’s detention to May 19. More information about her case may emerge then. But regardless of the allegations against hert, it’s impossible to divorce the legal case from the broader political implications.


In some cases, U.S. officials do speak out when they’re convinced an American has been wrongly detained. But Griner’s case is barely 2 months old, and officials have yet to make that determination. A State Department office that works to free American hostages and unjust detainees is not known to be involved.

Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.