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Investigating the timing and implications of Brittney Griner's arrest in Russia

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner is still in a Russian prison. When she's not playing for the Phoenix Mercury, the 6-foot-9 center plays for a team in Russia. Griner was arrested back on February 17 of this year for carrying hash vape cartridges in her luggage at the Moscow airport. It happened just days before war broke out between Ukraine and Russia. Jeff Eisenberg with Yahoo Sports has been looking into the timing of her arrest and the implications, and he joins us now. Hey, Jeff.

JEFF EISENBERG: Hey. How are you?

MARTIN: Doing well. Thanks for doing this. Can you start off by telling us about Brittney Griner's career in Russian basketball?

EISENBERG: Yeah. So in the offseason, a lot of WNBA players will go overseas to earn more money. And one of the most lucrative teams is UMMC Ekaterinburg. It's owned by two Russian oligarchs. And they're certainly a team that American players would want to play for because of the salaries and because of the way that they're treated there.

MARTIN: So as a result, Brittney Griner's kind of a big deal in sports circles in Russia. Nevertheless, she's arrested. Russia accuses her of breaking the law by having these vape materials with her. Her next court date is May 19. Can you explain the two possible ways the court could rule?

EISENBERG: Well, so it's a pretrial date on May 19, and the decision that the court will make is, is there more time needed for criminal investigation or is this case ready to proceed towards trial? And that decision is significant for a number of reasons. One, if they need more time, it's a suggestion that perhaps she might be there for more than just legal reasons because this is a pretty simple case. There's not a ton of witnesses. There's not a ton of evidence. So if it needs another extension, it's a suggestion that there is value for the Russian government for Brittney to be in custody because, potentially, she could be useful to them down the road.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about that possible utility because it's impossible to ignore the fact that her arrest happened right as Vladimir Putin was launching this war in Ukraine, which was obviously going to invoke the ire of the United States. Is Brittney Griner a political prisoner at this point?

EISENBERG: I think it's too soon to say definitively. But what we can say definitively right now is that she is at risk of being a political prisoner. There's basically two ways that her case could go. Her case could go down a legal track where she is essentially at the mercy of the Russian legal system, which is scary enough in its own right, or she could be dangled by Vladimir Putin as a political prisoner in exchange for perhaps another prisoner or something else that he wants.

MARTIN: Do we know anything about the conditions under which she's being held?

EISENBERG: We don't know much at all. We know that the State Department has visited her one time and declared her to be in good physical condition. But we don't know where she is being held. We don't know the conditions in that prison.

MARTIN: The WNBA starts its new season May 6. How has her home team, the Phoenix Mercury, been dealing with her absence?

EISENBERG: From what I understand, the Mercury are very concerned about her, but they also haven't spoken very much about her. And they have tried very, very hard not to shine a spotlight on this case and not to potentially increase her value as a hostage. So the lack of information is, again, troubling, like a lot of aspects in this case.

MARTIN: Jeff Eisenberg is a writer with Yahoo Sports. He joined us on Skype. Thanks so much, Jeff.

EISENBERG: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.