Trevor Reed’s release from Russian prison is ‘a very bad thing for Brittney Griner,’ one legal expert says


Brittney Griner with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics.AP Photo/Eric Gay

  • Former US Marine Trevor Reed was freed from Russian custody in a prisoner swap on Wednesday.

  • The sports world questioned the impact of Reed’s release on detained WNBA superstar Brittney Griner.

  • A legal expert told Insider it’s “a very bad thing” given Griner’s of higher value to Russia.

American citizen Trevor Reed was released from Russian custody Wednesday after the US government engaged in a prisoner swap to secure the former US Marine’s freedom.

And while the news of his liberation following nearly three years detained in Russia is obviously “a good thing for Trevor Reed and his family,” one legal expert suggested that it’s probably not a great sign for Brittney Griner.

The WNBA superstar was detained at a Moscow airport in February after customs agents accused her of having cannabis oil in her luggage.

“It shouldn’t be perceived as a good thing,” Esquire Digital’s chief legal analyst Aron Solomon told Insider. “I think it’s a very bad thing for Brittney Griner.”

Brittney Griner.

Griner with her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury.AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

Trading for any detainee is a tough balancing act. Negotiating with Russia is even tougher.

Solomon that both Griner and Reed, along with fellow US Marine Paul Whelan, the three prominent “political interlocutors” were explained in Russian custody. And when it comes to “the pecking order” of that trio, Griner finds herself “in the middle of the pack.”

The Russian government likely ascribes the most value to Whelan, who is also a citizen of Canada, the UK, and Ireland. The 52-year-old worked as a security consultant with dozens of international contacts and Solomon said he “certainly had a lot of classified information” at his disposal when he was arrested on espionage charges in Moscow more than three years ago.

Trevor Red

US ex-marine Trevor Reed, charged with attacking Russian police, stands inside a defendants’ cage during his verdict hearing at Moscow’s Golovinsky district court on July 30, 2020.DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

Though Griner was never privy to such important, sensitive information, she is a well-known figure both in Russia and in the United States. That state undoubtedly makes her a bigger bargaining chip than a non-famous citizen like Reed.

“She literally is the most high-profile male or female [American] athlete in Russia, so she’s the perfect person to grab,” Solomon, who has taught at both McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, said. “And then of course there were a lot of other reasons based on who she is, how she looks, et cetera, that made it extra attractive to Russia to grab her.”

“You can insert your reason of choice, right?” he continued regarding Russia’s motivation to take Griner into custody. “Her sexual orientation, her tattoos, the fact that she’s Black.”

Brittney Griner.

Griner.REUTERS/Brian Snyder

For all of those reasons, neither Whelan’s nor Griner’s cases can be directly compared to Reed’s. But the Texas native’s release undoubtedly has an impact on both of their prospects of returning home.

The Russian Foreign Ministry purportedly suggested that Konstantin Yaroshenko — the Russian detainee exchanged for Reed — could be returned “in exchange for any American national,” a senior official in the Biden administration told CNN. In theory, that would have included both Whelan and Griner.

But President Joe Biden made the “tough call” to exchange Yaroshenko for Reed, “whose health was a source of an intense concern,” the official told CNN on background. Reed’s family told CNN they believed he was suffering from tuberculosis after getting COVID-19 while in prison.

Solomon told Insider he suspects that “Russia hasn’t found anything big enough that they want to trade” for Whelan or Griner.

Brittney Griner.

Griner.AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

“The fact that Reed has been released doesn’t mean that [Griner is] Necessarily going to be released,” Solomon said. “Now, what it means is if Russia comes up with what they feel is an equitable trade, something that they want badly enough, that they’re gonna offer Griner’s release and return.”

What that “something” would entail is tough to surmise for anyone, even a legal expert like Solomon. It’s also dependent on a number of factors, including how much attention the general public and the media continue to give Griner’s case.

The WNBA is trying to ‘say less and push more privately’

The seven-time WNBA All-Star’s representation and the US government alike have suggested that the less we collectively discuss the situation, the better it is for Griner. WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert echoed similar sentiments to Insider in an exclusive interview about the league’s “say less and push more privately” strategy.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

While Solomon agrees that “the more we keep Brittney Griner out of the public eye today, the less value she takes on as a chip for a political trade,” he also thinks that also could decrease the urgency with which Griner’s case is handled. And “if our ultimate goal here is that nothing horrific happens to Britney Griner in custody,” then keeping attention on the issue is paramount.

That does, however, decrease the US government’s ability “to lessen her value.”

“I personally think that Russia is going to try to push for, rather than a trade with another person, the relaxation of some kind of comparatively minor sanction,” Solomon said. “Maybe something, if you relax a little bit on this, Brittney Griner is gonna end up coming home.”

“I don’t think that it’s foreseeable right now that they will have somebody in custody that’s a good one for a trade,” he added.

Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, center, warms up before Game 5 of the team's WNBA basketball playoff series against the Las Vegas Aces on Friday, Oct.  8, 2021, in Las Vegas.

Griner warms up before Game 5 of the WNBA basketball playoff series against the Las Vegas Aces in 2021.Chase Stevens/AP

A WNBA spokesperson told Insider on Wednesday: “We continue to have regular conversations with the US government on Brittney Griner’s case and getting her home safe and as soon as possible remains the WNBA’s top priority.”

Griner’s agent did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Griner’s next court date is set for May 19

Her charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, but the investigation is still underway in Russia. If law enforcement completes the inquiry by May 19 — the date of Griner’s next court visit — they’ll set a trial date shortly thereafter.

“The minute that the initial hearing was pushed back until May 19, I always said, there’s no way it’s gonna happen on May 19,” Solomon said. “I’d be very surprised if it does.”

Brittney Griner.

Griner.AP Photo/Eric Gay

If Solomon’s right, and the Russian courts push the date back further, than Griner can essentially be held in Russian custody indefinitely.

“I saw something in Russian law where it was two years, but again, Paul [Whelan] has been in custody for four years. The thing is, who is going to hold Russia responsible for upholding Russian law?”

“Russia does not have a rule of law,” he added. “Rule of law means things like you can’t just grab someone from airport and keep until you think you’re ready not to.”

Read the original article on Insider



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