Brittney Griner Is a Hostage, Plain and Simple

The Washington Post Editorial Board
Brittney Griner Is a Hostage, Plain and Simple WNBA player Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom near Moscow as her trial begins on July 1. (photo: Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

ALSO SEE: Everything to Know About the WNBA Star in Russian Custody

Brittney Griner, the WNBA superstar, has been detained by the Russian government since Feb. 17. On Friday, a trial began in a Moscow suburb on the allegation that she was carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil when passing through a Moscow-area airport. But the word “trial” hardly captures what is really happening. Russia is not a state governed by rule of law; it is run by a strongman and his clans, including a powerful security service. They have her in their clutches.

The State Department has already determined that Ms. Griner, twice an Olympic gold medalist, has been “wrongfully detained.” Put simply, Ms. Griner is a hostage, taken by President Vladimir Putin and his sprawling police state. At the State Department, her case has been shifted to the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, a section that seeks the release of hostages and others classified as being wrongfully detained abroad.

Russian courts rarely acquit the accused; Ms. Griner’s “trial” could drag on for months, or as long as Mr. Putin wishes. He will undoubtedly want to trade her for a Russian incarcerated in the United States, such as convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. This puts the United States in an extremely difficult position. A trade could win freedom for Ms. Griner but would encourage more hostage-taking; a refusal to trade would consign her to more agony in a Russian prison.

A state based on the rule of law does not seize individuals to use them as bargaining chits. A democracy does not imprison those who speak out. Mr. Putin’s regime thrives on such coarse gambits. Witness the unjust prosecution and jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, or political activist and Post opinion contributor Vladimir Kara-Murza, or Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen held in prison for what he says is a fictitious charge of espionage. For Mr. Putin, kidnapping a sports icon at an airport or murdering thousands of civilians in Ukraine is all in a day’s crude behavior.

The Russian leader’s repressive security services have for months been sweeping up anyone who protests the war against Ukraine. In recent days, a prominent opposition politician, Ilya Yashin, one of the few remaining voices speaking out against the war, was arrested in a Moscow park, to be held for 15 days on charges of disobeying a police officer. “I am staying in Russia,” Mr. Yashin wrote on Twitter in March. “I have said before and I keep repeating: Russians and Ukrainians should not be killing each other. If I am destined to end up in prison for antiwar speeches, I will accept it with dignity.”

On Thursday, authorities also detained Vladimir Mau, who had been associated with liberal economic reformer Yegor Gaidar in the era of President Boris Yeltsin and more recently had close ties with top officials as a member of the board of Gazprom, the state-run natural gas giant, and as rector of a major university. He was accused of being involved in a fraud. But the real reason is probably connected to Mr. Putin’s shadowy power plays.

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