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Many questions remain about why Russia arrested WNBA star Brittney Griner

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We still don't know very much about WNBA star Brittney Griner's detention in Russia. Over the weekend, news emerged that the seven-time All-Star has been detained since February. Russian officials allege that she was smuggling drugs into the country. There is work being done to bring her home. But as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, it is complicated.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Jon Franks remembers the first thing he felt last Saturday when he heard the news that Brittney Griner was being held.

JON FRANKS: My immediate reaction was, these charges are likely fraudulent.

GOLDMAN: Franks works with families of wrongfully detained Americans. His suspicion about Griner's case isn't based on inside knowledge. Nothing has been said publicly other than the initial allegation that Griner was carrying vape cartridges containing hash oil on her inbound flight to Russia. But Franks has seen bogus charges before. He's worked closely with the family of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who was convicted of assaulting a Russian police officer, which even U.S. government officials say was a sham. And now with Griner, Frank says, it's an alarming turn to see Russia start to take famous people.

FRANKS: And not only a famous American, an American with quite a fanbase in their country.

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: (Non-English language spoken).

GOLDMAN: For several years, Griner has played in Russia during WNBA offseasons. A number of American pros do that to pad WNBA salaries that are paltry compared to men's NBA earnings. If the drug charges against her, which carry a possible 10-year sentence, aren't legitimate, there could be numerous reasons for detention - leverage for a possible prisoner swap or reduction in the severe sanctions slapped on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Griner also is gay. And the LGBTQ community in Russia claims harassment and discrimination by the government. Whatever the reasons, Griner's fame is putting her detention squarely in the news. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is from Griner's home city of Houston.

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SHEILA JACKSON LEE: Anyone that is killing and attacking and destroying Ukraine, their neighboring country that has not bothered them, has no right to hold Ms. Griner.

GOLDMAN: For legal reasons, those in Griner's camp aren't saying anything beyond concern for her safety and hope for her return. Jon Franks hopes the Griner case prompts people in this country to speak out not only for her, but others who he says are wrongfully detained.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO'S "DEVIL'S HALO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.

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