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Brittney Griner's wife demands the U.S. do more to have Russia release her


Cherelle Griner, the wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner, is speaking out.


CHERELLE GRINER: I'm frustrated that my wife is not going to get justice. We are not going to ever be quiet until she's home safely.

SIMON: Brittney Griner has been held in Russia on criminal drug charges since February. She was arrested in a Moscow airport for carrying a vape pen and hash oil. She pleaded guilty to those charges this week and faces up to 10 years in prison as U.S.-Russia relations are strained over the invasion of Ukraine. Danielle Gilbert is a Rosenwald fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at Dartmouth and joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.

DANIELLE GILBERT: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: Let's begin with Brittney Griner's plea, recognizing that you're not there. Does it strike you as a strategy?

GILBERT: So the most important thing to know about Brittney Griner's guilty plea is that it does not change how the United States government sees her experience in Russia. The United States government considers Brittney Griner to be wrongfully detained, which is an official designation, noting that the United States government intends to negotiate her release, not simply wait for her case to work its way through the Russian criminal justice system. And I can see three plausible reasons why she might have pled guilty.

SIMON: Please.

GILBERT: As she said, she wanted the integrity of being honest about her situation. The two other reasons have much more to do with the strategy. So she might have pled guilty in hopes of having a lesser sentence in Russian court or better treatment in Russian prison. Or she might be pleading guilty because it's a necessary part of the negotiations to bring her home.

SIMON: What do you make of the impassioned statement that Brittney Griner's coach made, that if she were LeBron James or if she were white, she would be home by now?

GILBERT: There's a phenomenon known as the missing white woman syndrome, which essentially says that white, feminine female victims of abductions and of crimes receive a ton of media attention, whereas equivalent women of color receive far less attention. So the fact that Brittney Griner is Black and LGBTQ and gender nonconforming - these are all characteristics that bias against public attention and public support for her case.

SIMON: But at the same time, does public attention help her?

GILBERT: There are real pros and cons to public attention for these cases. The benefit of public attention is that it catches the eye of the White House. It convinces the president of the United States and the United States government to do everything that they can to bring Brittney Griner and other detainees home. The danger to this kind of public attention is that it can pressure the White House into making concessions that the United States government doesn't want to make. Russia is currently at war in Ukraine. The United States has imposed sanctions on Russia. There's a lot of diplomatic tension between our two countries. And so in the national interests of the United States, it would be unfavorable to make any sort of concessions to Vladimir Putin right now.

SIMON: What could Vladimir Putin, the Russian government want from the United States for the release of Brittney Griner?

GILBERT: The state-owned news agency in Russia has floated the state's interest in a prisoner swap for a Russian arms dealer named Viktor Bout. Bout was sentenced to 25 years in prison for supplying arms to armed groups and dictators all over the world. But there's also a number of concessions that the Russian government might want that we're not hearing about. There could be other prisoners that they're interested in. They could want lessening of sanctions that the United States has imposed because of the war on Ukraine or other political, diplomatic or economic concessions.

SIMON: I'm sure you could help us fill out a list of Americans who were detained overseas. The journalist Austin Tice was detained in Syria a decade ago. Siamak Namazi has been detained in Iran since 2015. Paul Whelan is - has been imprisoned for a number of years in Russia. What helps and what doesn't?

GILBERT: The majority of these Americans, in a new trend that's really increased in recent years, are held by adversarial states abroad, not just pariah states like North Korea and Iran, but increasingly more powerful countries on the world stage like China and Russia. In all of these cases, often the best way to bring an American home is for the United States government to make concessions, unfortunately, to our adversaries. But the problem with making those concessions is that it's likely incentivizing future attacks. During the last administration, President Trump - he made a big deal of his involvement in these cases. And people who watch this issue closely fear that that attention put a target on the backs of Americans traveling abroad and that we're seeing the consequences of that right now.

SIMON: Professor, what can a family do? The impulse to speak out must be great.

GILBERT: In an ideal world, the government would be working quickly and effectively and quietly behind the scenes to minimize the risk of raising the stakes of increasing the Russians' leverage for bringing someone home. But if those family members feel that the United States government isn't acting as quickly as possible, then it makes a lot of sense to speak out publicly. We just have to remember that every time they do, that our adversaries are watching that as well.

SIMON: Danielle Gilbert is a Rosenwald fellow at Dartmouth. Thanks so much for being with us.

GILBERT: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.