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WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the WNBA season began last week, amid the backdrop of on-court logos advertising "BG 42" at every arena, the league and its players spoke about their dismay regarding Brittney Griner's detainment in Russia on drug-related charges. Accused of carrying cannabis oil in her luggage and smuggling a narcotic substance, Griner has been detained since mid-February, and publicly, there’s been little movement on her case.
"It's kind of disheartening, the fact that she's been over there for so long and that it's still a fight that we're having," Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins told USA TODAY Sports.
But there’s cause for optimism, because former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who played a major role in freeing former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed in April and has a long history of helping free detainees from hostile foreign governments, is now working with Griner’s family to bring the WNBA All-Star home.
Griner’s situation has frustrated both the women’s basketball and larger sports communities since news broke March 5 of her detainment. Arrested 86 days ago — she was returning to Russia to compete for UMMC Ekaterinburg, the international team she’s played on for seven seasons — there has been little information available about her condition and seemingly limited government reaction and involvement in her case.
But that changed last week with the reclassification of her case to "wrongfully detained." Though government officials declined to give details for why they changed her classification, experts say it’s an important, and positive, development for Griner.
“I’m glad they did that. It’s seriously good news,” said attorney and Russian legal expert Jamison Firestone, one of the main proponents of the Magnitsky Act, the 2012 law that allows the U.S. government to sanction human rights violators. “The U.S. government doesn’t usually get involved in criminal prosecutions abroad unless they think they are unjust and people care.
“There is no telling what the effect will be but it means the U.S. is now officially committed to actively working for her release instead of simply observing to see if procedures are being followed.”
Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury, appeared in a Moscow court Friday, where her pre-trial detention was extended by one month. Her lawyer told The Associated Press he interprets a relatively short extension means her trial will happen soon.
Richardson, who held the position of United Nations ambassador during Bill Clinton’s administration, runs The Richardson Center, a non-profit, non-governmental organization. He worked for almost two years to secure the release of Reed, who had been detained in Russia since 2019 and was freed by Russian authorities in a prisoner swap.
Though the swap was sanctioned by the Biden Administration, Reed’s release was negotiated by Richardson and his team. In July 2020, Reed had been sentenced to nine years in prison for allegedly endangering “the life and health” of Russian police officers after an altercation; Reed and his family denied the allegations his entire detainment.
"You don't get these Americans released for free," Richardson told CNN. "There's always a price." While praising and crediting President Biden for sanctioning the prisoner swap, Richardson added, "despite this huge tension and conflict, that we’re able to negotiate this is good news for Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner and we should pursue that."
When Reed saw his parents for the first time in three-plus years after being released, he had a simple message for them: Do everything possible to get the other Americans back as soon as possible. Reed’s mother told CNN that her son said he felt “horrible” that he was home and others were still stuck, a reference to Griner and Whelan, another former U.S. Marine who’s been detained since December 2018.
The terms of Reed’s potential release were first presented to the White House last summer. On Feb. 23, the eve of Russia’s looming war with Ukraine, Richardson again traveled to Moscow to discuss Reed’s release. Richardson woke up to war, but with positive news from Russian authorities — they were still willing to swap Reed for Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot who has been convicted in the U.S. of conspiracy in a drug-smuggling plot and sentenced to 20 years.
Though Griner had already been detained when Richardson traveled to Moscow in late February, the former governor and his colleagues had no idea; their conversations were solely about Reed and Whelan.
Trevor Reed release could serve as blueprint
To better understand what this all means for Griner, USA TODAY spoke to a person who has worked in past hostage negotiations that involved freeing Americans from hostile foreign governments. The person was granted anonymity because of the sensitivity of Griner's situation.
Both this person and Firestone pointed to a law created just two years ago, which lists 11 reasons a “wrongfully detained” classification can be made, including:
(1) United States officials receive or possess credible information indicating innocence of the detained individual;
(7) the United States mission in the country where the individual is being detained has received credible reports that the detention is a pretext for an illegitimate purpose;
(8) the individual is detained in a country where the Department of State has determined in its annual human rights reports that the judicial system is not independent or impartial, is susceptible to corruption, or is incapable of rendering just verdicts;
(9) the individual is being detained in inhumane conditions
No one involved in Griner’s case, including U.S. Government officials, has explicitly said that the allegations against her are false. But as Firestone points out, the “wrongfully detained” designation does mean that U.S. officials feel whatever Russia is doing or intends to do, it is likely unfair.
It is also notable that Griner obtained this designation less than three months after being arrested. Speaking at a rally in front of the White House on May 4, Joey Reed, Trevor’s father, said “it took our son a year to get that classification … we’re so glad it only took them a short time to classify Ms. Griner as wrongfully detained.”
The person involved in previous hostage negotiations said a good litmus test is to consider what would happen if a local — in this case, a Russian citizen — was accused of the same charge. If a local isn’t likely to be in nearly as much trouble, it’s typically a sign that the person currently being detained is being held specifically because they have an American passport.
The person said that captors generally do not target Americans and that they’re not trying to “lure them in and arrest them. It’s actually happy accidents … once (a situation) is escalating they realize, ‘Oh, we have an American that actually did something wrong — let’s play it out.' ”
Ideally, Richardson will be able to negotiate Griner’s release without a trade of any sort, as he did in November when he persuaded Myanmar military leaders to free Danny Fenster, an American journalist. Just days before his release, Fenster had been sentenced to 11 years of hard labor, convicted of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations.
Typically in detainment situations, there are what hostage negotiators consider two windows of opportunity to free someone. The first is right after the person has been arrested when the captors don’t fully realize the uproar the person’s detainment could cause. That window usually closes when there are charges and a trial.
The second window opens when captors identify an incentive they’d trade for or recognize there’s some sort of face-saving scenario where, if they release the prisoner, they can be seen as humanitarian. That option carries political capital, which can be compelling for the captors.
Griner's popularity could help her
So what’s next for Griner, the two-time Olympic gold medalist?
One notable difference in Griner’s case compared to those of Reed and Whelan: The superstar athlete has not been accused of anything nefarious, like espionage. She has a following in Russia and plays for a popular team. Both of those facts could work in her favor.
Last week, at Reed’s insistence, his parents flew to D.C. for a demonstration with other families of Americans currently detained overseas. The group protested outside the White House, where Joey Reed said of the 50-plus Americans currently detained overseas: “We need the government to bring all of them home, and not wait so long to do it.”
One crucial component to getting Reed home was the fact that Reed’s family was able to meet directly with and appeal to President Biden. At the rally, Joey Reed told the group, “We always knew if we met this President, he would do the right thing.”
Reed’s health was also a concern, as he was exposed to tuberculosis in the Russian prison system and, according to his family, was not receiving medical treatment. (Reed is recovering at a military treatment center in Texas, and is in good condition, according to his family.)
It has been 83 days since our friend, Brittney Griner, has been wrongfully detained in Russia. It is time for her to come home. @WhiteHouse, we are paying attention and we are counting on you. #WeAreBG pic.twitter.com/9aLG3MJv1Y
— Breanna Stewart (@breannastewart) May 12, 2022
Since Griner’s reclassification, multiple high profile WNBA players including Nneka Ogwumike, the WNBPA president, and Breanna Stewart, one of Griner’s USA Basketball teammates, have posted social media messages about her.
“Having learned that the U.S. government has now determined that BG is being wrongfully detained, we are hopeful that their efforts will be significant, swift and successful,” Ogwumike tweeted on May 3. The next day, Stewart tweeted, “It is time for her to come home. White House, we are paying attention and we are counting on you.” Each tweet included the hashtag #WeAreBG, and Stewart has reposted her message multiple times.
The social media messages are likely a calculated effort to pressure the Biden administration to meet with Griner’s family, including her wife Cherelle. On Friday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, "We are in touch with her family, but I don't have any planned meetings to preview."
Atkins, the Mystics guard, is a Texas native like Griner. The two played together last summer on the U.S. women's basketball squad that won gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
"I'll be 100% honest — I don't know how much it is that we can do," Atkins said, "but our biggest thing is creating noise around her name."
Griner's agent, Lindsay KagawColas, told USA TODAY in a statement Friday:
“Regardless of Russian legal proceedings, Brittney Griner has been officially designated as Wrongfully Detained by the U.S. Government and has been held now for 85 days. As such – and out of respect for the sanctity of sport and to support the confidence of all athletes traveling abroad to compete – we expect the White House to use all options to bring her home immediately and safely.”
Before Griner’s reclassification, most players, coaches and league officials declined to offer public comment, worried that speaking out could further complicate her situation. That’s not the case anymore, and her detainment is now being freely acknowledged by other athletes as well.
Tuesday night, Phoenix Suns point guard Chris Paul wore a T-shirt with a photo of Griner as he walked into the arena for Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
“Shoot, this ain’t even just an NBA or WNBA thing, I think everyone wants her home,” Paul said in the postgame press conference – again in his Griner shirt – as teammate Devin Booker sat beside him and nodded emphatically. “She’s a huge part of the community here … it was all in support of BG. We miss seeing her at the practice facility day in and day out.”
Contributing: Chris Bumbaca, Mike Freeman and Rebecca Morin
Follow national correspondent Lindsay Schnell on Twitter at @Lindsay_Schnell
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hostage negotiator explains how Brittney Griner release could unfold