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The basketball star taken prisoner

The basketball star taken prisoner


Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia on drug charges since February. The US government may have a way of getting her out – by releasing a man nicknamed “The Merchant of Death”


Hello I’m Tomini and this is the Sensemaker from Tortoise. 

One story every day to make sense of the world.

To find out more about Tortoise and how to become a member, just go to this episode’s description. 

Today: why a professional basketball player has been imprisoned in Russia and how she might be freed.


“Gets it into Griner. Griner puts it up and in. Brittney Griner gives the Mercury the lead with 4 point 9 to go!”

WNBA commentary

Brittney Griner is a two-time Olympic basketball champion who plays for Phoenix Mercury, one of the highest ranking teams in the US Women’s National Basketball Association.

“She is a super star we are talking about… she is the top of the top of the top. This is LeBron of the WNBA…”

The Shop

“And she also plays in Russia – for UMMC Ekaterinburg.

Russian basketball commentary

And on 17 of February this year, she was arrested on drug charges at a Russian airport, after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage.

She’s been in prison ever since and faces a sentence of up to ten years.


Brittney Griner isn’t the only US citizen in prison in Russia.

In 2018 Paul Whelan was arrested and sentenced to 16 years on charges of espionage, which he denies.

The US state department says that like him, Brittney Griner has been “wrongfully detained”, which means it has an obligation to secure their release.

But this is all taking place against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the unprecedented sanctions brought against Moscow by the West, so diplomatic attempts to free them will be difficult.

“I don’t see any sort of dialogue right now that will enable a quick resolution to this problem.”

William Pomeranz for Scripps National News

Nonetheless, the White House has been urged to do all it can, with some – including the basketball star LeBron James – lamenting the fact that not everything has been done to bring Brittney Griner back to the US.

“You always feel like if you’re from a certain place, you always feel like they got your back. In a sense now, how can she feel like America has her back? I would be feeling like: ‘do I even wanna go back to America if I’ve been going over 130 days?’”

LeBron James on Brittney Griner’s situation

So how might Brittney Griner be freed?

One way the US government could secure Brittney Griner’s release is by agreeing to a prisoner swap, like it did with Trevor Reed.

He returned home from Russia in April this year after being sentenced to nine years for intentionally endangering the lives of police officers.

Here he is talking to ABC News.

“There’s pretty horrible conditions there: there’s rats, food there could be, you know, really bad; in the summer it’s very hot there, there’s no air conditioning obviously or even fans inside of those cells. They do not like Americans – and they don’t try to hide that.”

Trevor Reed to ABC News

Russia reportedly wants to swap Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout – a notorious Russian arms dealer currently serving time in the US for conspiring to sell weapons to people who wanted to kill American citizens. 

“Courted by drug lords and dictators, the US saw him as a threat, because of his ability to arm terrorists targeting the United States. A former Russian military officer, Bout has been protected by powerful friends, and long considered untouchable by law enforcement.”

Armen Keyetian reporting to CBS News

DEA Officer Mike Braughn: “Viktor Bout, in my eyes, is one of the most dangerous men on the face of the Earth.”

Interviewer: “On the face of the Earth?”

Braughn: “Without a doubt.”

Mike Braughn in an interview for 60 Minutes

But the release of a criminal nicknamed “The Merchant of Death” would be a hard thing for the US government to justify.

Especially because it would be in exchange for an All-Star basketball player arrested on comparatively minor charges in Russia.

And even if the US did want to do a prisoner swap, a senior Russian diplomat has said nothing can be discussed until the trial has ended. 

So as things stand, Brittney Griner’s best hope is to plead guilty.

“It will get her closer to the verdict that we know the Russians will give, which is guilty. That will allow for the next phase to occur and potentially a break for her, perhaps, in the diplomacy.”

ABC News

Her lawyers will know that fewer than one per cent of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, so they have presented evidence that shows she was prescribed medical cannabis for a chronic injury. She says she didn’t intend to break the law, because she packed it in her luggage by accident.

If her trial ends with a guilty verdict and a prison sentence, calls for a swap will grow louder. 

And the US government will have to decide how to engage with Russia, who it’s willing to release, and what that might mean for Paul Whelan – the other US citizen imprisoned by Russia.

Today’s episode was written by James Wilson and mixed by Ella Hill.