Sports are inherently political. WNBA star Brittney Griner is just the latest athlete to find herself mixed in political matters. This time, however, it comes with international trouble.
Griner of the Phoenix Mercury was taken into custody Feb. 17 by Russian officials in an airport near Moscow for alleged possession of vape cartridges filled with hashish oil — a concentrated form of cannabis. Though cannabis has been legalized in select states in the United States, it is effectively banned in all forms in Russia.
Griner had been playing for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg in the WNBA offseason until increasing tensions between Russia and Ukraine called for her to come back stateside.
Griner’s detainment came just days before Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in mid-February — the result of which has been operating in the background throughout the entirety of Griner’s situation, making it all the more dangerous. Outlets have called the ongoing crisis the most dangerous between the United States and Russia since the Cuban missile crisis or the Cold War. This is a direct result of the United States’ efforts to impose sanctions against Russia, financially support Ukraine and more.
Russian customs service has stated that a criminal case has been opened regarding large-scale drug transportation, a charge that has Griner facing the possibility of up to 10 years in Russian prison.
The bleak reality is that Griner is not the first American to experience injustice in Russia. In mid-June, former American embassy employee and current teacher Marc Fogel was sentenced to 14 years in a maximum security prison after pleading guilty to the same charge Griner is facing, as well as one other charge. Fogel was said to have been carrying 17 grams of cannabis, yet was charged for large-scale smuggling — Russian law defines large-scale as being 100 grams or more.
Recent reports claim that the alleged amount of hashish oil Griner had on hand was .702 grams. Much like Fogel, the amount found on Griner does not match the charge of large quantities. This discrepancy likely means that if the political climate were different or Griner was someone else, she likely would be facing a relatively moderate sentence.
With the exact details of her detainment being so slowly publicized, it is hard to anticipate how this will turn out and when Griner will be free to come back to the United States. Such obscurity has led to speculation that Griner is being used as a political tool by Russia to gain leverage over the United States. Given this, there have emerged concerns that public pleas for her release will only increase her value.
This is especially interesting in light of the fact that, as of May 3, the U.S. government considers Griner to be wrongfully detained in Russia, thus a political pawn, yet little has been done to bring her home. Russian media believe Griner could be used in a trade to get a notorious Russian arms dealer back in a prisoner swap. If this is in fact on the table, it begs the question, how much does the United States government value Griner?
A former Department of Justice employee notes that while negotiations would likely bring Griner home, they open the door to more hostages being taken in the future — once again drawing back to the aforementioned question.
At a pretrial hearing in the last week of June, a judge ordered Griner remain in custody throughout her trial (which began July 1) with Griner saying she understood the charges, but declined to enter a plea. Simply because the trial has officially started, however, does not mean Griner’s return will be imminent. The extensions of her detainment have only continued as claims of absent witnesses resulted in a delay with expected resumption today.
“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner wrote in a letter to the White House. “Please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees.”
In response, the White House press secretary noted that the case is personal to President Biden.
Now that her trial is officially underway, people are wondering: What’s the next step? Despite being “public,” trials in Russia are almost exclusively limited to those directly involved. Making matters worse is the reality that, unlike the United States’ “innocent until proven guilty,” Russian courts seem to be simple matters of formality where guilt is predetermined — and that’s just in general, for cases without political importance.
Experts generally agree that Griner’s trial is largely for show in an attempt to make the United States interfere on her behalf. They note that regardless of reality, Griner’s best decision would be to plead guilty in hopes of getting a lesser sentence and/or less severe treatment. Additionally, any situation in which she is released will likely require a guilty plea. An attempt at acquittal, even with a strong defense, would likely be futile and result in worse treatment.
On Wednesday, President Biden finally spoke to Griner’s wife, Cherelle, after receiving a letter from Griner herself Monday and Cherelle Griner expressed dismay at the President’s lack of acknowledgement in an interview with CBS Mornings the day prior. Joined by Vice President Harris, Biden stated that they are working to bring her home as soon as possible.
Just as experts noted, Griner pleaded guilty to the charges against her early Thursday morning at the second hearing of her trial. With her plea, Griner went on to note that she had never intended to have the drugs in her luggage but that they were there as a result of hasty packing.
Griner’s guilty plea has been widely agreed upon as the next necessary step as there is a 99% conviction rate for criminal cases in Russia and, if a prisoner swap is being discussed by the nations, it would not occur without confession of guilt. However, it is important to note that there has been no indication that a prisoner swap will occur beyond individual speculation.
Per Griner’s lawyers, she chose to plead guilty because of her position as a role model to demonstrate the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions. With the next trial date scheduled for July 14, the defense hopes the prosecution will take into account all external factors and serve a more lenient sentence.
While the possibility of a high sentence remains on the table, many believe this guilty plea is the long awaited next step to bringing her home. Russian diplomat, Sergei Ryabkov, stated that they are open to negotiations for Griner, but only after a verdict has been reached.
If her case in any way aligns with that of Trevor Reed, the aforementioned could very well be true. Reed is a former US marine who was detained in 2019 for endangering Russian police officers. Reed returned to the states just this April after months of negotiations since his conviction in 2020 to serve over 9 years in prison. Throughout the entirety of his detention, though, Reed remained insistent on his innocence until a few days prior to his release — thus, indicating that Griner’s guilty plea could prove to be a positive step.
Regardless, the facts remain true. It has been 140 days since Griner was taken into custody. The charges being brought against her do not match the facts of the alleged crime. And frankly, if the WNBA wage was higher, she would not have been playing in Russia at all. As it stands currently, it is completely unknown when Griner will return stateside nor what her condition will be when the time comes.