This past February, Brittney Griner was detained in the Moscow airport for less than a gram of cannabis oil. Russian authorities accused Griner of smuggling drugs in her luggage. Brittney accidentally packed cannabis oil cartridges while in a hurry to the airport. Upon discovery of the cartridges, she then was detained and forced to sign papers without a lawyer present. The papers Griner was forced to sign was written in Russian, not knowing Russian, she tried to translate with Google Translator but the Russian authorities confiscated her phone. She ended up illegally signing papers she couldn't read or comprehend.
(WNBA Star Brittney Griner standing in her holding cell.)
The Russia-Ukraine war is an integral part of this story. A few months ago, Russia invaded Ukraine to capture Crimea and Donbas territories. The U.S. has been giving Ukraine aid to fight against the Russian invasion.
Being in a foreign country's jail during a war is a scary scenario to be in. After signing the unreadable documents, Brittney was illegally detained and charged for "drug smuggling" without due process. In July, Griner plead guilty to unknowingly smuggling drugs in her luggage hoping that the judge would be lenient with her sentence. Her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, also stated that her doctor recommended cannabis to treat her pain for injuries incurred on the basketball court. Six months after being arrested, the WNBA star shows up for sentencing. Griner looked like she was in good spirits despite the situation she is in.
Before the judge’s ruling, Brittney gave an emotional speech:
"I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here. I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn't end my life here. I know everyone keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that, that is far from this courtroom. I want to say again that I had no intent on breaking any Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime."
On Thursday August 4th, Judge Anna Sotnikova of the Khimki city court sentenced Brittney to 9 years in Russian prison and fined 1 million rubles, approximately $16,400 in U.S. dollars. Russia is using this ridiculous prison sentence to trade for prisoners. The maximum amount of time they usually give for this offense is 5 years according to Griner’s lawyers. Though Russia's laws are a little bit more conservative with the marijuana laws, breaking marijuana laws don't equate to anything more than a day in jail or a fine.
(Brittney handcuffed, heading to one of her court dates.)
Many people believe that Griner is being used as a political pawn because of her national notoriety in American society. In court they made it quite clear it wasn't going to be a fair trial. In Russian law, it is not as common for people to be acquitted of charges like American law. Griner's lawyers Blagovolina and Boykov, stated they will appeal the decision, criticizing the court for ignoring evidence:
"We are very disappointed by the verdict. As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone regardless of nationality. The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea," they said in the statement. "This contradicts the existing legal practice. Taking into account the amoount of the substance (not to mention the defects of the expertise) and the plea, the verdict is absolutely unreasonable. We will certainly file an appeal." Griner’s lawyers have 10 days to appeal the verdict.
Griner's sentence will be served in a penal colony. Similar to American maximum security prisons, penal colonies are very harsh conditions built to break prisoners. Most prisoners work 8 to 16 hour workdays sewing, cleaning, cooking, and serving food. Due to her expertise in basketball, she can potentially coach basketball within the penal colony instead of the traditional jobs prisoners are assigned.
The Biden administration proposed a prisoner exchange to bring Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence for alleged espionage charges, in exchange for Viktor Bout. Bout is a convicted arms trafficker, notoriously known as the "Merchant of Death". Viktor has supplied arms for conflicts in Africa and Latin America. In 2008, Viktor was arrested in Thailand and extradited to America, where he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Russian government officials have communicated a counter-offer through an unofficial backchannel in recent weeks that they want to see the release of Vadim Krasikov a convicted murderer currently serving a life sentence in the U.S. The source of the message is the Russian spy agency known as FSB, Putin's former employer. U.S. officials did not accept the offer, feeling that the swap is not a legitimate offer for a basketball player.
Trading a professional athlete that had a recreational amount of cannabis oil for international terrorists is insane work from Putin. Putin delayed Griner's release so she can get a definitive prison sentence to drive up her bargaining price. Political pettiness from Russia-Ukraine diplomatic relations is costing Brittney Griner's freedom. Brittney Griner's freedom is at jeopardy in an unfamiliar land, far away from family and friends.