Brittney Griner’s Russia detention: What Bill Richardson’s involvement could mean for WNBA star

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Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former governor of New Mexico, will be working at the behest of Brittney Griner’s family to help secure her release, Fox News Digital confirmed Tuesday.

Griner was arrested in February after Russian officials claimed a search of her luggage revealed vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis. Griner could face up to a decade in prison if she’s convicted. She’s expected to have a hearing in Russia on May 19.

Richardson’s involvement came at the same time the U.S. State Department said in a statement to Fox News Digital that Griner has been reclassified as being “wrongfully detained.”

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Brittney Griner of USA during the Women's Semifinal Basketball game between United States and Serbia on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on August 6, 2021 in Saitama, Japan

Brittney Griner of USA during the Women’s Semifinal Basketball game between United States and Serbia on day fourteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Saitama Super Arena on August 6, 2021 in Saitama, Japan
(Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is among the highest priorities of the U.S government,” a State Department spokesperson said. “The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner.

“With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.”

Griner’s Lindsay Kagawa Colas also released a statement on the WNBA star’s detention on Tuesday.

“Brittney has been detained for 75 days and our expectation is that the White House do whatever is necessary to bring her home,” the statement to Fox News Digital read.

Richardson, who served as an ambassador in the Clinton administration, also had a helping hand in getting Americans out of North Korea and Burma after he left his post.

North Korea

FILE – In this Feb. 29, 2016, file photo, American student Otto Warmbier speaks as Warmbier is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea.

FILE – In this Feb. 29, 2016, file photo, American student Otto Warmbier speaks as Warmbier is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea.
(AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon, File)

Richardson helped the State Department secure the release of Evan Hunziker, who was the first American citizen to be arrested in North Korea on espionage charges since the end of the Korean War. Hunziker was spent three months in 1996 in custody before U.S. officials secured his release.

In 2013, Richardson, led a “humanitarian” mission to North Korea to try and talk to Pyongyang about the release of Kenneth Bae, who was accused of trying to help topple the government. Richardson and others failed to get him released. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison before he was released in 2014.

WNBA STAR BRITTNEY GRINER FEATURED IN PHOENIX MERCURY HYPE VIDEO WHILE DETAINED IN RUSSIA

Ohio Gov. John Kasich asked Richardson for his help in trying to get Otto Warmbier released from North Korean custody, who was detained on a visit in 2016. Warmbier was released in 2017 in a vegetative state.

Burma

American journalist Danny Fenster, who was released from prison on Monday after negotiations between former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson and the ruling military junta in Myanmar, speaks to the media at JFK International Airport in New York, U.S. November 16, 2021.

American journalist Danny Fenster, who was released from prison on Monday after negotiations between former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson and the ruling military junta in Myanmar, speaks to the media at JFK International Airport in New York, U.S. November 16, 2021.
(REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

In 2021, Richardson negotiated with the military junta to release journalist Danny Fenster who was sentenced to 11 years in prison over alleged incitement and violations of laws on immigration and unlawful assembly.

Legal expert weighs in

Former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson American speaks during a news conference after the release of journalist Danny Fenster, who was released from prison on Monday after negotiations between Richardson and the ruling military junta in Myanmar, after Fenster's arrival at JFK International airport in New York, U.S., November 16, 2021.

Former U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson American speaks during a news conference after the release of journalist Danny Fenster, who was released from prison on Monday after negotiations between Richardson and the ruling military junta in Myanmar, after Fenster’s arrival at JFK International airport in New York, U.S., November 16, 2021.
(REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

Aron Solomon, chief legal analyst for Esquire Digital, talked to Fox News Digital about the latest word from the State Department about Griner’s reclassification. He said Griner is as much of a political prisoner as Trevor Reed was and as Paul Whelan is.

Solomon said there was no way Griner didn’t know the laws about bringing in hashish oil into Russia having played in the country for seven years before her arrest.

“It made no sense to me since day one that she was re-entering Russia with drugs that could land her in prison,” Solomon said.

He added Richardson has “one great skill.”

“Everybody knows he’s a hostage negotiator. The State Department said, well, she’s not a hostage. They only reclassified her status to wrongfully detained. We’re not saying that she’s a hostage. Of course, she’s a hostage. Where we are right now is Russia and the United States have been talking for weeks trying to come up with a good trade for Brittney Griner,” he said.

“My opinion, Russia probably said, you know what? How about we relax some of the economic sanctions. For example, countries like Germany can pay for Russia oil and they don’t have to use rubles. And the United States was probably like we’re not giving that for Brittney Griner. It’s too much of a trade. …”

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He added: “This is totally a political prisoner, a political detainee situation at this point. And she could be there for another two weeks, two months to two years depending on when the Russian and American governments find a good swap.”

Bill Richardson, former Governor of New Mexico, in an interview on January 13, 2015.

Bill Richardson, former Governor of New Mexico, in an interview on January 13, 2015.
(Adam Jeffery/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Solomon said he didn’t think the new developments would speed up Griner’s release.

“I don’t think anything that has happened recently helped speed up her release date because I don’t think it’s in Russia’s benefit until they could maximize her value. The U.S. government has supposedly been telling her family, the WNBA, her agent, everybody to keep quiet and now everybody’s OK to talk about. I’ve been saying people should’ve been talking about it all along,” he told Fox News Digital.

“The reason being is I want you to imagine if it wasn’t Brittney Griner who was taken into custody but the person I always like to use is Kyrie Irving. There’d be free Kyrie vigils. Kyrie Irving would be on every single paper every day. They’d be counting down the dates of his detention – because it’s Kyrie Irving. It’s Britney Griner, it’s a woman’s basketball player. I think it actually benefits the United States and Russia for people to keep talking about her because I’m sure Russia wants people to keep talking about her because it increases her value as somebody who’s in demand but it also keeps her in the public spotlight and puts pressure on the U.S. government to do something as they did in appointing a hostage negotiator.”

Solomon keyed in on what Richardson could bring to the table as an expert in this field.

“I think an experience hostage negotiator who understands Russia, who understands how their diplomatic channels work, who has experience like he does in the United Nations, can be super, super valuable,” he said. “Him being the negotiator doesn’t mean she’s going to be released next week. It could, but it could be years. Paul Whelan has been in custody since 2018. … Who knows how long this is going to take. I don’t think Richardson’s involvement itself means this thing is close to over.”

WNBA to honor Griner

The WNBA announced measures it would take this season to pay tribute to Griner while she’s held in Russia. Starting Friday, Griner’s initials and jersey number (42) will be featured along the sideline of all 12 WNBA courts.

“As we begin the 2022 season, we are keeping Brittney at the forefront of what we do through the game of basketball and in the community,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a news release. “We continue to work on bringing Brittney home and are appreciative of the support the community has shown BG and her family during this extraordinarily challenging time.”

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Jim Pitman, the Mercury’s executive vice president and GM, added: “In conjunction with the league, the other 11 teams, and those closest to BG, we will work to keep her top-of-mind as we tip the 2022 season. While we await her return, our main concern remains for her safety and well-being. Our fans will miss her impact on the court and in our community, and this gesture of including her initials on every court and our BG’s Heart and Sole Shoe Drive activation in every market are for them and for her.”



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