Detained basketball star should face law like anyone else, Kremlin says
US women’s basketball icon Brittney Griner is not a “hostage” and should not be treated differently in her Russian drug case simply because she is a foreigner, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said.
Griner, 31, was detained at a Moscow airport in February when banned cannabis oil vape cartridges were found in her luggage.
The two-time Olympic champion had been arriving in Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason – something she has done since 2014.
Griner’s detention was extended by a judge last week until at least July 2 as her case is investigated, while some in her homeland have accused Russia of holding her as a “political hostage.”
That allegation was rejected by Kremlin spokesman Peskov in an interview aired on Monday by MSNBC.
Accused by interviewer of Keir Simmons of sending the wrong signal by detaining Griner, Peskov responded: “It’s also a terrible message to bring some forbidden essences and materials into this country while trying to build bridges [through sport].”
“It is prosecuted by Russian laws,” added Peskov. “Russia is not a single country in the world that has strict laws in that sense, there’s a number of countries where you cannot enter with any drugs, actually it is prosecuted by law.”
When asked if Griner was a political pawn, the Kremlin spokesman replied that “we cannot call her a hostage. She violated Russian law, and now she’s being prosecuted, it’s not about being a hostage.”
Peskov noted that Griner was facing charges in the same way that any Russian would, asking why an “exemption” should be made because she is a foreign citizen.
“There are lots of American citizens here [in Russia]. They’re enjoying their freedoms… but you have to obey the laws,” said the spokesman for President Vladimir Putin.
Griner’s case has gathered more publicity in the US, with displays at WNBA games featuring slogans of support.
In May, the US State Department designated Griner as “wrongfully detained,” transferring her case to the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
There have been unconfirmed reports in the Russian media that Griner could be part of a prisoner swap with Russian businessman Viktor Bout, who was sentenced to 25 years in a US prison over allegations of weapons smuggling.
However, Peskov said he had no information on any potential swaps, according to NBC.
Meanwhile, Griner’s wife has issued a stinging criticism of the US government after officials botched a long-awaited phone call at the weekend.
Cherelle Griner was hoping to receive a call from her wife on Saturday, which was their fourth anniversary and would have been the first time they have spoken since the detention.
The call did not happen, with it later revealed that the basketball star had attempted to call 11 times through a number she had been provided for the US Embassy in Moscow, which as it turned out was unstaffed at the time.
Cherelle Griner told The Associated Press that she was “distraught, hurt and fed up” after her hopes were dashed due to the apparent incompetence of US officials.
“I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now,” said the angry spouse.
“If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife's behalf to come home? Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call.”
Cherelle Griner said she was informed that the number given to Brittney Griner was one which is ordinarily used to process calls from prisoners on weekdays, rather than at weekends.
“But mind you, this phone call had been scheduled for almost two weeks – with a weekend date,” she said, adding that she had dwindling hope of a meeting with US President Joe Biden to discuss the situation.
The apologetic US State Department put the fiasco down to a “logistical error” and claimed it was fully committed to securing Griner’s release.
Brittney Griner, 31, is widely considered among the finest female basketball players of all-time and is a three-time WNBA All-Star.
She plays for the Phoenix Mercury in the US was but arriving in Russia to appear on a lucrative deal for UMMC Ekaterinburg.
A sniffer dog at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport alerted staff to her luggage and a search found banned hashish oil vape cartridges, according to officials.
Griner was detained on drug-smuggling charges which could carry punishment of between five and 10 years in prison.
At a court appearance back in May, lawyers for Griner said their client did not have any complaints about her detention conditions, although the beds were said to be too small for her 6ft 9in frame.