Brittney Griner: ‘This is the most audacious hostage-taking by any state imaginable’, says former captive

But it was no kind of disbelief that she was arrested on charges of possession of cannabis oil at an airport near Moscow, more than any Western media outlet would have relayed the details of her alleged crime as s it was a fact.

“It’s being reported as if people take these allegations seriously,” he told CNN. “I think it’s a huge mistake to report these allegations as if they were true or even likely to be true.”

Based on the limited information provided by the Russian Federal Customs Service and state media, Franks is very concerned about the predicament that Griner now finds himself in.

“It has a lot of characteristics of a very unjustified and arbitrary detention,” he explained. “I found the video from the Russian customs service strange. They are scrolling it in front of the cameras. The photo was completely useless and stupid.”

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury during the first half of the WNBA game at the Footprint Center on August 31, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Russia’s customs service says Griner was “smuggling significant amounts of narcotics” and says a criminal case is pending. A potential prison sentence of 10 years has been mentioned.

“They’re making her look like a drug kingpin. I think it’s unlikely that Ms. Griner will get a fair trial,” Franks concludes, “because nobody gets a fair trial in Russia. It’s a rigged game.”

In 2014, Iranian American journalist Jason Rezaian was detained in Tehran. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but he spent a long time in Iran’s notorious Evin prison: 544 days.

The Washington Post reporter was finally released in January 2016, and in Griner’s case he sees many parallels to his own. “This is the most daring hostage-taking by any state imaginable,” Rezaian told CNN.

“I know from my own case that the alleged charges against me were not based in reality, and they were used to perpetuate a narrative about why I was being held.”

Like Franks, Rezaian cautions against verbatim repetition of the allegations against Griner.

“I think every time reporters repeat that narrative, we’re doing some of the hostage takers’ dirty work for them. My attitude is that Brittney Griner is innocent of any crime until the world sees otherwise. “, adds Rezaian.

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury celebrates with fans after Game 2 of the 2021 WNBA Finals at the Footprint Center on October 13, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Mercury beat the Sky 91-86 in overtime.

It is still unclear exactly when Griner was apprehended in Russia, but it was in February when she returned from the United States to compete for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian basketball league.

This is Griner’s seventh season in Russia, where she is playing in the off-season in North America. News of her predicament did not reach the United States until March 5, when Russia revealed it was holding her.

It was only then that Griner’s wife, Cherelle, started writing about it on Instagram. “There are no words to express this pain,” she said. “I hurt, we hurt.”

If she can indeed be called a “hostage,” Griner will join an unenviable club of approximately more than 50 American citizens currently being held hostage or wrongfully detained overseas.

Activists worked to free Americans Reed and Paul Whelan, who are both in Russia.

While acknowledging that Griner’s family has been under tremendous emotional stress, Rezaian thinks they should have spoken sooner.

“They made the same mistake I see others make over and over again, allowing the possible hostage taker to take control of the narrative,” Rezaian says.

“Unfortunately, you see people thinking, ‘This is just a big mistake that’s going to explode in a few days.’ Removing his detention does him a disservice, these things don’t magically resolve.”

Brittney Griner #15 of Team USA heads for the basket against Team Japan during the first half of the women's basketball final match on day sixteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on August 08, 2021 in Saitama, Japan.

The timing of Griner’s detention could hardly be worse, she was arrested just before Russia invaded Ukraine and it was only made public after the United States began to sanction the government Russian.

“You can’t extract these things from each other,” Rezaian explained. “Trying to maintain diplomatic niceties around these situations may be in the interest of American national security, but it is certainly not in Brittney Griner’s interest.”

Rezaian urges Griner’s family to speak up and encourages his American employers to make noise.

Griner is a two-time Olympic champion, seven-time all-star with the Phoenix Mercury and a legend in the women’s professional league, the WNBA. While his team and the league have released brief statements, Rezaian says they could and should be doing a lot more.

“The WNBA, part of the NBA, one of the largest and most powerful sports leagues in the world, has a real responsibility to this individual,” he said. “There should be a robust response.”

Brittney Griner #15 of Team USA takes a selfie with her teammates and their gold medals during the women's basketball medal ceremony on day sixteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on August 08, 2021 in Saitama, Japan.

In the vacuum of information about Griner’s whereabouts, some sought to fill the airwaves with commentary on his involvement in Russian basketball and the wisdom of his decision to go there at a time when geopolitical tensions in the region resembled to a powder keg.

It’s a feeling that smacks of victim blaming. “It’s irrelevant,” Rezaian says. “That’s not a credible argument.”

Franks is equally dismissive. “Would have, could have, should have. It’s the Monday morning quarterback, and it’s not helpful,” he said. “They welcomed her to this country to work. To me, that’s pretty cheeky.”

Both men say Griner had every right to continue working as a professional athlete in Russia, and the fact that a country in which she was well known and celebrated has now locked her down only makes the allegations made against it more suspicious.

Rezaian remembers the countless trips he made inside and outside Iran over a period of five years. “I never had any problems until I had them,” he says. “Is it my fault? No, absolutely not.”

Colin Allred: US Representative says Brittney Griner case 'extremely concerning' and consular access blocked

It’s hard for anyone to predict what the coming weeks and months will bring for Griner’s case, but Rezaian relies on his own experience to suggest that Griner may have to prepare for a long stay in Russia.

“It may turn out to be a marathon, not a sprint. You hope it’s a sprint but conserve your energy in a way that will benefit you throughout this ordeal,” he says.

In a podcast titled “544 Days”, which he released in October 2021, Rezaian details the anxiety, uncertainty and monotony of his detention in Iran. He says he made the audio series in part to present a road map to the families of other citizens who might one day find themselves in a similar situation.

“I tried to find things to laugh at every day because there’s definitely a lot of absurdity in those situations,” he adds.

“It takes nothing away from the horror and the terror, but the absurdity that a great American athlete is being held on unsubstantiated charges on the eve of a cataclysmic war on the other side of the world? It’s horrifying, but it’s also a farce in its own way.”

Brittney Griner #15 of Team USA poses for photos with her gold medal during the women's basketball medal ceremony on day sixteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on 08 August 2021 in Saitama, Japan.

Franks has known since he pleaded for Reed that Griner could be detained for a while.

He urges anyone who cares about her to keep her case in the public arena.

“Sports fans can play a huge role because they’re not a constituency I think [American] the government hears,” Franks says.

“Do you want to see Brittney Griner come home? Or Trevor Reed or Paul Whelan or any of the other 50 hostages? I would suggest calling the White House every day and telling them you want President Biden to give prioritizing the repatriation of wrongfully detained U.S. citizens.”

Franks reiterates that Griner’s family should do the same. “There’s a tough choice to be made about whether or not to speak up, but shine the light,” he says. “If it was my loved one, my response would be to shine a light. Every time.

“People who do wrongful detention are oddly sensitive to bad headlines.”

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