A Brief Overview: The Griner Trial Until Now
In February of this year, WNBA star Brittney Griner was on her way to play off-season basketball for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg team when she was stopped at an airport outside Moscow, Russia for carrying, “two [cannabis vaporizer] cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil, totaling 0.702 grams” said the prosecutor, at the time of the initial hearing.
After four months detained in a Russian prison, Griner pled guilty to charges of possessing cannabis but insisted that she had “no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” said Griner. Russian law doesn’t terminate a trial based on a guilty plea, rather it’s understood as a tactical ploy to show regret and hope for a lesser sentence.
The lesser sentence did not occur. Brittney Griner was found guilty of attempting to smuggle “illegal narcotics into Russia,” and was sentenced to nine and half years of incarceration– nearly the maximum sentence she could have received. Despite her lawyers’ best efforts of proving her lack of intentionality, Griner was ultimately a victim of politics and bad timing.
The question of a prisoner exchange between Russia and the U.S. has remained muddled by politics of war – Griner having been detained right as Russia invades Ukraine makes it difficult for the U.S. to negotiate with a government where “individuals [are used] as political pawns,” according to U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken in August.
What Happened To Brittney Griner This Week?
On October 25th, Griner’s sentence was upheld by Russian courts.
One minor change, however, was appended: her time spent in detention before her trial will count towards her sentence. In other words, the days she spent in Russian prison between her arrest in February and her trial in July, will each count as 1.5 days towards her overall prison sentence.
During an appeal hearing on Tuesday, her lawyers stated under Russian law, Griner’s sentence was “disproportionate” for the crime and reiterated that it was an “unfair and unjustified” verdict. Griner, via video from her detention center north of Moscow, noted “people with more severe crimes have been given less than what I was given.”
The Tuesday ruling paid no mind to the U.S. determination of Griner’s detention as “wrongful,” and Jake Sullivan– national security advisor on the Biden Administration– reiterated previous U.S. officials’ thoughts, calling the ruling “another sham judicial proceeding” by Russia.
Bother Griner and her lawyers have stressed the toll this detention has taken on Griner. Her lawyers commented, “[Griner] had hopes for today… each month, each day away from her family and friends matters to her.” Griner states, “it has been very, very stressful and very traumatic to my mental and my psyche and being away from my family, not being able to communicate.” She’s now been away from her family for over eight months, with no end in sight.
Another appeal is possible via Russia’s court of cassation– the highest court of appeals in the country– and her lawyers state, “We think we should use all legal tools available but that is her decision to take.”
…And That Prisoner Exchange?
Jake Sullivan also stated that the talk of a prisoner exchange has remained in the negotiation stage between the two countries' leaders, but the current state of foreign affairs– ie; Russia’s invasion of a sovereign country– has made it difficult to come to a compromise.
That being said, according to Sullivan, Biden “has demonstrated that he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough divisions to bring Americans home.” Former United Nations ambassador, Bill Richardson, has been unofficially negotiating with Russia and claims “cautious optimism” for a deal to be reached by the end of the year.
Until then, Griner is faced with time in a Russian penal colony– an isolated settlement established as a type of prison, often involving forced labor. Griner has eight years left on her sentence, and she fears she “might be [there] forever.”
Griner’s future seems to be in limbo, but what we know for certain is that neither she, her lawyers, nor the President are ready to give up on bringing her home.
To add your voice and help bring Brittney Griner home, visit wearebg.org. For tips on contacting the Biden Administration, the WNBA, or the nonprofit Athletes for Impact, click here.