WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, July 1, 2022.

Going public with Brittney Griner's wrongful detention in Russia could be risky, hostage expert says

Hugh Dugan, a former State Department special envoy for hostage situations, has handled negotiations for Americans detained or kidnapped abroad. He joined The World's host Marco Werman to talk about WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner's detention and how negotiations for her release might unfold.

The World

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, July 1, 2022.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Brittney Griner, the American basketball star with the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, was detained in Russia more than four months ago — and that's where she remains.

"I'm terrified I might be here forever," Griner wrote in a handwritten letter that she sent to President Joe Biden.

She faces up to 10 years in prison on drug charges in Russia.

US officials say Griner is in wrongful detention. Russian court proceedings are currently underway.

Hugh Dugan, a former State Department special envoy for hostage situations, has handled negotiations for Americans detained or kidnapped abroad. He spoke to The World's Marco Werman about Griner's case.

Related: Race, sexual orientation play a big role in WNBA star Brittney Griner's arrest in Russia, scholar says

Marco Werman: So, we first spoke with you about Brittney Griner when her detention was labeled wrongful. That was 78 days after she was taken into custody. It's now been 138 days since her detention. What does this mean for the negotiations over her release? 
Hugh Dugan: We've seen more publicity surround her case. There was some anticipation that by being declared wrongfully detained by the White House, that this would expedite her release. And that's always a gamble to make that call because, in fact, it might delay her release. And one never knows which way it's going to go because when you've seen one hostage case, you've only seen one hostage case. 
So, Brittney Griner has now pleaded to President Biden. What options does the American president have here? 
Well, as I just mentioned, it can either be publicized greatly or it can be done very quietly behind the scenes. The quiet route is usually the most effective in that it does afford face-saving measures for both sides. In the end, the highly publicized route might be preferred if, in fact, the other side seeks to leverage her release against the big gain in their favor.
So, you're saying there is a scenario in which it's actually more beneficial for Griner if Biden does not remark on her case publicly? 
Well, he can certainly commiserate with the situation. But the day-to-day detailed activities that are underway are best left out of the spotlight. 
So, what is your sense of the Russian court case against Griner? Does the Biden administration need to wait for a verdict first before attempting any more diplomacy?
Well, the Russian courts are slow. Our courts are slow, too, at times. But, not to try to compare the two, just to say that the weeks and months have seemed like an eternity, I'm sorry to the family and, of course, to Brittney Griner. They may not be so unusually long when it comes to the Russian court system or any other foreign court system. We've had Americans sitting in other countries for well over two years before they're even seen by our consular officials, much less seen by a judge in that court system. So, we have to just learn patience for another system. 
So, the World Justice Project, a nongovernmental organization that evaluates the rule of law in different countries by surveying citizens there, they reported this year that Russia ranked 94 out of 128 nations in terms of justice. That index includes Russians' perceptions of whether their courts are even impartial. So, why should the Biden administration take the Griner trial and Russia seriously and just come out in public and say so?
Well, the fact is, they hold her under their system, as weak and poor of a system as it is. Our complaints from outside don't move it — you know — in any direction that we care to go. Unfortunately, that's just the reality. Americans need to understand when they go overseas, they are subject to the laws of those lands.
There's been a lot of speculation that Griner could eventually become part of a prisoner swap with Russia, with some of their convicted people in US prisons. Can you walk us through how that process would work. 
When it comes to exchanging and holding people hostage who are not criminals, who have not been sentenced, I wouldn't call that a straight prisoner swap. And also, when we're talking about the balance of the two parties, someone who's a hardened terrorist, who's been convicted and charged and sentenced in our country for a long time, is not the same as an American who's going abroad basically on a cultural affairs mission to play basketball or to understand better a foreign country. So, the proportionality of the swap, so to speak, has to be seriously considered. And I know the White House is always very anxious about forgoing a hardened criminal here for an American tourist, because there are millions of American tourists around the world any day of the year. There are millions of Americans who live abroad and any one of them could be tagged by that country, and then we would be compromised into to giving up some hardened criminal that is sitting in the United States under our law.
You used the word hostage. Are you considering Brittney Griner a hostage?
We have to hold off. I believe in saying the word hostage in its technical term because that implies that they are leveraging her presence against their larger foreign policy interests.
Let me end with this question to you: Brittney Griner is considered one of the best WNBA players of all time. At the same time she's been detained for 138 days. If one of her male peers from the NBA, like LeBron James or Steph Curry, was detained, how different would this story be?
Well, I can't speak hypothetically. All I can say is I'm quite stunned that the NBA, the WNBA, hasn't done more with the International Federation of Basketball trying to recruit the Euro Leagues and even the Russian team to scream bloody murder. The entire world of basketball and international sport has to be outraged by this behavior. And we've got to make a make a statement about the inviolability of sport from politics of this sort.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.