Britney Greener and the labyrinth of wrongful arrest

The American people first heard on March 5 that Brittany Greener had been detained at Moscow airport. The Russian Federal Customs Service released a video of the WNBA star, who was in the country to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, on February 17, shortly after he was arrested for possessing hashish oil vapor cartridges. News spread after Russia invaded Ukraine. It was not until May 3 that the U.S. State Department officially reclassified Greener as a mistaken detainee. Although the reclassification did not change his position in Russia, it did change the State Department’s decision on how to handle his case on American soil. Instead of relying on Russia’s judicial process to determine Greener’s fate, the US government will now discuss bringing the basketball star into the country.

But the reclassification did not automatically release Greener. This past Saturday marked the 100th day of his detention; Last week, his wife Cherelle went Good morning America To call on President Joe Biden to bring him to the country. Meanwhile, the Russian legal process has been transferred without notice. The announcement that Greener had been wrongfully detained was broken at first, with a court hearing scheduled for May 19. But on May 13, his lawyer, Alexander Boykov, said the court had extended his pre-trial detention by one month. This was not the first time that had happened; Greener was detained for two more months in March. His next court hearing is likely to be held on June 18, unless his detention is extended again, which is normal in this case.

In the early days of Greener’s detention, the WNBA accepted the State Department’s advice to remain silent in the hope that his case could be resolved amicably. But the State Department’s reclassification has broken a unique test for the WNBA, a league that has been thoughtfully organized over the years to bring about change on the basketball court.


As soon as I heard the news about Brittney Griner, I was desperate for more information. I have been following her basketball career since her college days at Bellere, and when she spoke openly, the school and then-head coach Kim Mulkey asked her and the other players to keep their sexual orientation a secret. WNBA’s rallying cry for the release of Greener now includes the message “We are BG”, I have long believed that he is the only force.

Beginning in March, I went in search of answers — wherever I found them. That’s how I found the only group of people willing to speak out in the early days of Greener’s arrest: the world of unjustly detained lawyers, family members, and ex-prisoners. I spent hours talking to them and learning from them. They provide clear insights into a problem that may seem like a maze.

It is obviously difficult to analyze every wrongdoing case, but it all starts with an arrest. For a moment, a visitor flies off a foreign flight, wakes up to attend a friend’s wedding, or posts a picture on social media. Subsequently, they were swept into custody. This is how the experts described to me the practice of “hostage diplomacy”: a country detaining a foreign national without warning, in order to obtain concessions or political gain from another government. Such unjust detention cases use people as bargaining chips.

Perhaps the greatest tool of hostage diplomacy is the “proper process”, the promise of a country’s sovereign legal system as a kind of Trojan horse. While Greener’s pre-trial was delayed by another month, the announcement hit some circles; An article by Jezebel called the news “unthinkable.” For the experts I spoke to, the delay was surprising.

“These cases are not really about legitimacy,” said Jonathan Franks, a crisis management consultant who has helped repatriate large numbers of unjust detainees from countries including Russia and Iran. “Unjustly detained are not resolved with judicial results. Duration. “

When Franks saw Greener’s handcuffed picture, past the heads of Russian government officials on camera, he saw a familiar kind of performance. If Greener’s trial takes place next month, instead of another delay, the legal process will still continue as a mask.

“It’s not a court,” Franks said. “It’s a dinner theater, and a puppet is controlling the results from above.”

WNBA players are going against it: not the owner of a corrupt party or an ignorant politician, but a faceless court system with little information or relief in its decision. And the fight against it is unintentional.

“You don’t choose to be unjustly detained, it will choose you,” said Cynthia Lowertsher, research director at the James W. Foley Foundation. “And it chooses you strictly.” Loertscher runs a database with detailed information on more than 200 unlawful detentions, interviewed hundreds of “hostage family” members (as they call themselves) and wrote the Foley Foundation’s annual report on US hostage policy. Loertscher knows that each case of unjust detention is unique; There is no single solution.

“If anyone ever says there’s a way to get hostages out, there’s only one way to do it, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” he tells me. “And if we don’t want to know the reality of the lawsuits that have come before, how are we going to get an American out now?”

What Loertscher knows is that unjustly bringing detainees home often requires tough solutions, such as prisoner exchanges or lifting of international sanctions. It also has to navigate a maze of interconnected government bureaus, complex policies and top-level interests of the White House, sometimes year after year. Currently, 59 Americans, including Greener, have been unjustly detained abroad, most of them without celebrities. No one knows the complexities of their case better than their own family, who work tirelessly to bring them home. These loved ones never wanted to be advocates in the eyes of the public. They include Sarah Moriarty, daughter of Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who was captured in 2007 after traveling on an unauthorized CIA mission in Iran.

“At first, we had no idea how to reach out to our congressmen and senators for meetings,” he told me. “We had to figure it out.” Little did Levinson’s family know then that he would become the longest-serving American hostage in history. As she reflects on those early days, Moriarty said it is difficult to determine who is working in her father’s best interests.

“It simply came to our notice then. Who will I listen to, who will I trust?“You want to be vocal, but the government is not saying that. And you think you should trust them completely because they are the government, they always do it.”

Thirteen years later, Moriarty and his family finally receive evidence from U.S. officials that Levinson died in captivity. They have not yet been able to hold a funeral for him or say goodbye properly, but they have lobbied to change the playbook for the unjustly detained case. In 2020, the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act was passed, expanding the tools available to the U.S. government to free unjustly detained Americans, including the permanent installation of a special presidential envoy for hostage affairs (SPEHA). Led by recruiter Roger Carstens, SPEHA played a key role in negotiations for the release of unjust prisoners, including Greener.

In a world of unjust detention, prisoners’ loved ones receive a constant and tedious kind of advocacy. “It’s hard to find families who haven’t been financially harmed in a case of unjust detention,” Franks said. He has seen families throw away their savings, take part in their loved ones’ trials and sometimes pay out of pocket to make sure their loved ones have food and water in prison. While it is impossible to know which strategies will necessarily work to get them home, we can point to one recent strategy that worked: in the case of Trevor Reed.

In August 2019, Reid was arrested in Moscow for assaulting two police officers, allegations he has always denied. The Marine Veterans were charged with assaulting officers on their way to the station and occupying the steering wheel of their vehicle, although video evidence shows that this did not happen. In 2020, he was convicted and sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. He was detained for a total of 985 days.

After waiting more than two years for action, Reed’s parents publicly and perversely called for his release. This past March, Paula and Joey Reid requested a private meeting with President Biden. After the president failed to attend their meeting, Reeds appeared on the TV network and demonstrated outside the White House until Biden invited them. They had the support of Franks, who acted as their family spokesman. “We weren’t fine,” he said. “We broke things.”

A month later, the president unexpectedly signed a high-profile prisoner swap, where Reid would return to the United States in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of cocaine trafficking. “When the noise was loud enough, Trevor Reed came home,” Franks said.

It was a shocking realization that Reed’s return on 27 April was possible. But in a world of unjust detention, the victory of bringing an American back home ultimately leads to the question of why another should suffer.

Greener is not the only American to be unjustly detained in Russia today. Paul Huilan, a Canadian-American who was the security director of a Michigan-based auto parts supplier, was in the country for four years, and was sentenced to 16 years in a closed-door trial for espionage. When Reid returned home, he told his parents that he felt “terrible” when he found out that Huilan was not with him. As soon as he received medical treatment in the United States, Reed asked his family to join another protest outside the White House with an alliance of hostage families campaigning for their loved ones. That was a day after the State Department reclassified Greener.


In recent years, WNBA players have used effective combinations to address issues outside of basketball. They have organized campaigns to protest police brutality, successfully revolted against a Republican co-owner of a party, and backed his opponent in a Senate race. But the issue of unjust detention presents a new challenge.

The campaign to bring Britney Greener home is growing, with widespread support across the WNBA as well as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. This season, each game has a league-wide floor decal with its name and number, and players are often seen in pregame attire. Wearing his gear. Chris Paul and the Phoenix Suns also showed their support during the NBA playoffs. Every day, Seattle Storm’s Brenna Stuart sends a tweet to the White House to bring Greener home.

These efforts are a good start, but the lesson to be learned from the case of Trevor Reed is that it is more effective to talk where you cannot be ignored. One person in the world of unjust detention, who asked not to be named, recently told me, “The point is, working really well with the government often coincides with the progress of your loved ones.” That’s why the movement needs to put pressure on Biden and the White House to do whatever it takes to bring Greener home. For Trevor Reed, it was his parents’ fearless campaign and Constant attention from the media.

The WNBPA seems to have adopted the Reed family strategy. Over the weekend, the union issued a strong statement urging the public to speak up and introduce themselves. A specific request: That President Biden met with Cheryl Greener. It’s a real next step beyond just making noise or wearing a sweatshirt, something that many unjustly detained families desperately want. What I’ve learned from talking to these families and experts is that no matter what, we can’t let the U.S. government hook off to bring Americans home safely.

“It simply came to our notice then [Biden] Has power ” Cherelle said a Good morning America Interview Last week. “He’s a political pan, so if they hold him because they want you to do something, I want you to do it.”

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