Friends and supporters of WNBA star Brittney Griner are asking why it’s taking so long to get her out of Russia. In a recent development, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with MSNBC that Griner should not be called a “hostage,” saying she “violated Russian law” when she brought “forbidden materials” into Russia.
That statement came on the heels of a disappointing moment for Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, when the two were unable to connect on a scheduled phone call — a logistical error on the part of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, according to the State Department. Griner apparently tried to make the call 11 times on what was the couple’s anniversary. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said another call was in the process of being scheduled.
Griner has been detained in Russia since February for allegedly smuggling vape cartridges containing a cannabis oil illegal in the country — a charge the State Department says is false. On June 14, Russia extended Griner’s extension for a third time. Griner will remain in the country until at least July 2.
Though at first her family and allies were rumored to be keeping negotiations quiet in hopes of coming to a resolution faster, they’ve become more public of late, wondering what, exactly, it will take to bring her home. U.S. media reported the White House was considering a prisoner swap to get Griner home — exchanging convicted arms trader Viktor Bout for Griner — but that has yet to happen, and neither side has officially confirmed the reports.
Jonathan Franks — the spokesman hired by Marine veteran Trevor Reed’s parents to work with the White House and Congress and to manage media coverage during Reed’s detainment in Russia — said the decision to do a prisoner swap is complicated. And in Griner’s case, he said, a swap with someone as high-profile and dangerous as Bout would be unprecedented.
Still, Franks made the case that when dealing with a “thugocracy,” there is no reason to wait to make the “unpalatable” trade. He also talked about why it’s unfortunate that families with detainees overseas need spokespeople like him to get the process moving and how the U.S. needs to drop the politics when it comes to getting Americans back home.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: Do you think there is any truth to what the Russian government has charged Brittney Griner with?
Jonathan Franks: The Russian story is that a dog at the airport was alerted to her bag, right? Well, you just have to watch the video to see: The dog sniffs Ms. Griner’s bag, and then you see it move right on to the next bag. So, unless the Russians have invented a telepathic dog, I’m not buying their story because I don’t see the dog alert. And I happen to be the owner of a service-trained Labrador. I know a lot about dogs alerting. And I just don’t see that dog alerting. So, they’re making her out to be some sort of drug kingpin, but they have not shown the media any drugs. So that seems suspicious. If you have the goods on somebody, it would seem to me that you would show the media.
G: What similarities do you see to the case Russia made against Trevor Reed?
JF: [Seemingly like with Griner’s case,] the charges in Trevor’s case were entirely made up. The case hinged on video footage of whether Trevor grabbed a police officer’s arm in this police car, causing the car to swerve and putting the officers in reasonable fear of their lives. And based on video collected by the defense, not only does the car not swerve, but it also doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary on its entire trip to the police station.
They found out he was American. They found out he was a veteran and decided to hang on to him. That’s what happened.
G: What do you think the chances are that Russia will release Griner of their own accord?
JF: The goal of the captor in these cases is to win concessions from the United States, either regarding people or policy or something else — to hold somebody as a pawn. Generally speaking, countries that do this kind of thing have judicial systems that are sort of on marionette strings, operated from above. And that is what’s happening in Russia with Brittany’s case.
You look at Paul Whelan [a retired Marine detained in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that the U.S. says are false], and you start to realize how long these cases can go. I’ve had a bunch of clients, mostly veterans that have been wrongfully detained abroad.
People sometimes forget, we’re not dealing with a negotiating party negotiating in good faith. We’re dealing with, effectively, thugs. And they’ve still got a thugocracy. And it’s complicated by American politics. That’s why I say, as a country, it would be great if we could send our leaders a clear signal on where Americans are on these questions [of how to deal with governments like this]. I suspect you find out a strong majority of Americans come down on the side of “let’s bring our people back.”
G: What’s unpopular is the prisoner swap, right? There’s some controversy over prisoner swaps — how did Reed manage to get that deal? Will that work for Griner?
JF: Prisoner trades have traditionally been seen, and rightly so, as problematic and (allegedly) politically unpopular in the sense that it they necessarily require giving up a properly tried and duly convicted foreign national in exchange for transparently innocent Americans.
The fact remains that these cases always get resolved by doing something unpalatable. And people are not going to like what it takes. I don’t love a prisoner trade. The [detainees] don’t love them. The families don’t love them. Nobody loves them. But if the choice is right …
Trevor’s parents did an amazing job calling out sort of this entrenched belief that prisoner trades are politically toxic. There are 58 cases of wrongfully detained Americans — at least, right? — and I’m not saying a prisoner trade would resolve all of them, because it wouldn’t. But there’s a nice chunk of them that could be resolved that way.
We need, as Americans, to have a national conversation and, ideally, a mature non-politicized conversation where we decide what we’re willing to do to bring our people home. Because I think Americans are more pragmatic about this than their elected leaders. We had hoped to see more releases; we have not been seeing more releases. I guess I chalked that up to indecision. Also, who the Russians are asking for in Griner’s case, Viktor Bout, is unprecedented.
My last few clients were three out of the four prisoner trades the U.S. government has done to resolve wrongful detentions. Most of those were Iran cases, and Iran traditionally asks for elderly Iranians or dual nationals in our prisons that have done something [on a smaller scale] — stuff the Americans, just ordinary Americans, just don’t care about.
And in Trevor Reed’s case, ordinary Americans just didn’t seem to care about making a trade for Konstantin Yaroshenko [a Russian pilot in jail in the U.S. for drug-smuggling].
There was not a word of criticism from elected Republicans. Now, did all of them praise the president? Of course not. That’s the world we live in. But nobody criticized it. And I think that’s a testament to the job Trevor’s parents did, on the Hill, talking to lawmakers and flat out asking them face-to-face for their support in a deal to bring their son home.
G: How did getting that wrongfully detained designation help Griner?
JF: Generally speaking, it takes getting that wrongfully detained designation to get the U.S. government to publicly act. In Brittany’s case, her team was successful in getting her designated prior to the date of an actual [Russian] judicial outcome. I think that was exactly the right decision.
I don’t know why we would sit around waiting on a judicial outcome [when dealing with] a country that doesn’t produce fair judicial outcomes. Right? The Free Brittany movement has accomplished a heck of a lot in its first 100 days.
I just hope that [the U.S. government] will continue to treat everybody, including non-celebrities, the same way, right, and hoping that this signals sort of a broader willingness to make these calls earlier on in these processes. If you can say the U.S. government has designated the person wrongfully detained, that is a game-changer.
G: What are some of the reasons you heard about why the U.S. couldn’t get Reed out?
JF: People, including the government, told me for months that, “You know, gosh — getting Trevor Reed out — man, that’s gonna be hard with the war on” and, “If we could just get this war under control, we could work on that in like 30 or 60 days.”
And I’m thinking to myself, why? Obviously, this conflict is going to go on forever — at least until Putin runs out of money. So, you know, waiting was not viable.
And you have to remember, on the Russian side, this particular attempt to do what I would call state-sponsored kidnap for ransom has been a national priority of theirs since at least 2016. Over two Russian individuals in our custody, right, both duly convicted, right. Getting those two men out has been a national priority of the Russian government since at least 2016.
G: How many U.S. citizens are currently detained that you know about?
JF: It’s a bigger story than just Brittney and Paul. There are at least 58 other families. And there’s a whole bunch on the margins that may very well, you know, eventually make their way onto that “wrongfully detained” list but aren’t yet. We have a veteran being tortured in Venezuela who’s on a show trial right now. We’ve got a gentleman that has been hanging out in China for 10 years. Trevor was in for 985 days — a lot of these guys have been wrongfully detained for four or five, six years. We’d like everything to move faster.
G: Does having a spokesperson help a detainee come home?
JF: Keep in mind that most of these families are without professional help, either because they can’t afford it, or they choose not to have it. And quite frankly, they shouldn’t need to get professional help. Ultimately the government should be doing that for them. I work pro bono, but not everyone does.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.