Is American basketball star Brittney Griner a political prisoner in Russia?

Amid the U.S.-Russia conflict, there's mounting concern about the detention of American Brittney Griner, a professional women's basketball star who plays in Russia and has been held there since February. Many are now asking if she's a political prisoner. Washington Post columnist Jason Rezaian, who was unjustly imprisoned in Iran for 544 days before his 2016 release, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amid the much larger conflict between the U.S. and Russia, there's mounting concern about the detention of Brittney Griner, a WNBA basketball star who also plays in Russia.

    She's been detained there since mid-February. And, yesterday, a Russian court extended her to attention to late May.

    Amna Nawaz has the story.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, Brittney Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport, allegedly for possession of vape cartridges with cannabis oil, which is illegal in Russia. Griner plays for a Russian team during the WNBA's off-season to earn more money.

    Her detention wasn't disclosed for weeks, and U.S. officials have not been allowed to see her. Griner is one of dozens of Americans held by other governments, even as this week saw the release of two British citizens from Iran, charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and retired civil engineer Anoosheh Ashoori, freed after five years of detention.

    Joining us to examine this all is Jason Rezaian, columnist for The Washington Post. He was unjustly imprisoned in Iran for 544 days before his release in 2016.

    Jason, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you so much for being with us.

  • Jason Rezaian, journalist:

    Thanks for having me. My pleasure, Amna.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So we should ask first about the case of these two British nationals.

    We have been seeing pictures they're sharing of their reunions with family, Nazanin's reunion with her young daughter, Gabriella, as well.

    What should we understand about why they were released and why now?

  • Jason Rezaian:

    Well, first of all, neither of the people should have been arrested in the first place. They're completely innocent of crimes. The same goes for other U.K. citizens, American citizens, Germans and French, who are being held now by Iran.

    The timing of their release is interesting, because the U.S. and the U.K. had been trying to negotiate together to get their people being held hostage by Iran released simultaneously. It appears that the U.K. broke away from that and decided to do this on their own, found a way to repay the historical debt to Iran, which seems to have been the impetus for arresting these people in the first place, even though they had nothing to do with it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Seems that unfreezing involved millions of dollars that went to the Iranian government.

    But there's different nations and different circumstances here. But are there lessons the U.S. government should be pulling from what happened in that case with Iran that the U.S. government could apply to help release Brittney Griner from Russia?

  • Jason Rezaian:

    Yes, I have been arguing a long time that what is termed as wrongful detention or unjust detention is really just foreign governments taking U.S. citizens hostage.

    In the case of Brittney Griner, it's hard to know if the allegations against her have merit. But, even if they do, it's a major red flag that she's been denied consular access and then, just in the last 48 hours or so, her detention extended through May.

    These are all ways that authoritarian governments use to present a veneer of a judicial process while they unjustly hold Americans or citizens of other liberal democracies as political leverage against our governments here in the West.

    So, I'm worried that that's the case here. And I think that the approach that the U.S. government has taken to many of these similar cases, whether it's Iran, Russia, China, Venezuela, which are — these are the most common offenders of this particular kind of crime — has been rather a flat-footed approach and one that hasn't got us quick results of freeing Americans who are imprisoned for no other crime than holding an American passport.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jason, you have been among those calling attention to the timing of this, right?

    Brittney was detained in Moscow just days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Now you have the U.S. and Russia at a major point of tension, and Russia has in its custody a major WNBA superstar. What about that?

  • Jason Rezaian:

    I have heard a lot of people saying that this approach that the WNBA and her family and her representatives are taking of trying to be quiet about it, so that this can be resolved quietly, how do you resolved quietly the apparent abduction of a major international celebrity by a foreign government that we're in a confrontation with, frankly?

    So I think that the circumstances around trying to get her out already very complicated, exacerbated by the fact that the U.S. has been putting sanctions on the Russian government and officials close to it.

    And so I think that this notion that we should keep this under wraps, I have been following cases of Americans detained in other countries since the day that I was released, and I have never seen an instance where keeping it quiet was the way to go.

    Once the Russian state media presented a picture, a mug shot of Brittney Griner and announced the alleged allegations in her case, the cat's out of the bag. This is a matter of public record and concern at this point.

    And we should be talking about it and we should be shining a light on it, for no other reason than her treatment will probably be much worse if we don't talk about her. And I think the fact is that the likelihood of a long detention, whether it's weeks or months, seems pretty clear.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jason, what should we know about what kind of pressure, what kind of tactics the U.S. government is probably putting into place right now?

    I mean, we should mention among those sanctioned in Russia are very rich men who are involved with this basketball team she plays for. Could that be a way to try to apply some pressure and get her freed?

  • Jason Rezaian:

    I think that there's always multiple ways of going about this.

    You know, hiring a lawyer and going through the official judicial legal process of a country is one step that you have to take, but there are all sorts of other ways that the U.S. government has to reach out to brokers within the Russian regime, to apply potential sanctions pressure, as you indicated, and also to kind of seek out what it is that the Russians might want, what kind of demands that they have.

    I'm not saying you necessarily give in to those, but you should at least know what they are.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What do you think is the best-case scenario for Brittney Griner right now?

  • Jason Rezaian:

    The best-case scenario is that sometime in the coming days the charges are trapped, and she comes home.

    I would love nothing more than to see that happen. I think it's possible, but I don't think that that's at all likely.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We will certainly be following in the days ahead.

    Jason Rezaian from The Washington Post, thank you so much for your time.

  • Jason Rezaian:

    Thank you, Amna.

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