Two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist Brittney Griner went on trial in court near Moscow on July 1. Griner, a WNBA athlete who plays for Phoenix Mercury in the United States and in Russia during the off-season, was arrested on February 17, 2022 at a Moscow airport when vaporizer cartridges containing hashish cannabis oil were found in her luggage.
Brittney Griner's Arrest In Russia
Over the past four and a half months since Griner’s arrest, which occurred a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, her supporters have feared that she would be used as a political pawn as tensions rose between Russia and the U.S. Government officials have echoed these concerns; Evelyn Farkas, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Obama Administration, said that Griner could be used as “a high-profile hostage.” Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) has publicly called for Griner’s release. Meanwhile, Griner’s detention - originally thought to be relatively short - has been extended multiple times.
In early May 2022, the U.S. government officially declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained,” indicating that authorities would begin to take a more aggressive approach to obtaining her release. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has deemed bringing Griner home to be a top priority, although he has refused to comment on whether the U.S. may negotiate a prisoner swap with Russia to do so.
Brittney Griner's Cannabis Oil Should Not Be A Criminal Offense According To Russian Law
Reports from the trial confirm that the prosecution is accusing Griner of drug smuggling charges, which can be punishable by up to 10 years in prison. However, the prosecutors stated in court that Griner was in possession of less than a gram of cannabis oil.
“Being sufficiently aware that the movement of narcotic drugs is not allowed... no later than February 17, 2022 at an unspecified location under unspecified circumstances from an unidentified person [Griner] bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil, totaling 0.702 grams," the prosecutor said, according to a TASS (Russia’s state news agency) reporter onsite at Khimki City Court.
Why is this significant? Because although Russia continues to have some of the strictest federal drug policies in the world, the nation’s government changed its legislation in 2006 to reflect new specifications for cannabinoids, which are still in effect today. According to Russian law, individuals possessing fewer than 6 grams of cannabis are not to be charged with a criminal offense, but are instead to be fined 5000 rubles ($87.72 USD) or to be detained 15 days in jail. (Russian legal procedure defines 15 days or fewer in jail as a non-criminal offense, and this does not affect an individual’s criminal record in the country.) On the other hand, possession of cannabis exceeding 6 grams is considered “a large amount of an illegal substance” and is punishable by years-long prison sentences.
Brittney Griner, by the prosecutor’s own words, was in possession of not even a full gram of cannabis oil. Under the country’s laws, she should have been fined or at most been detained for 15 days. But she has been incarcerated for four and a half months, facing up to 10 YEARS IN PRISON.
Is Brittney Griner A Political Prisoner In Russia?
It makes no sense unless one subscribes to the theory that Griner’s imprisonment is purely to have her as a political hostage. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, during a conference call with reporters, emphatically said that Griner’s detention is not politically motivated, and that she was carrying illegal substances into Russia, for which she can be imprisoned under the law. Yet again, all this isn’t quite adding up, unless being an American automatically qualifies one for a higher punishment in Russia.
Brittney Griner's Trial, Day One
The prosecution argued that Griner intended to import the drugs into Russia's territory and put the prohibited substances into a backpack and a suitcase, according to TASS. During the hearing, an employee of the Sheremetyevo airport customs services was one of the two witnesses, Griner’s attorneys said in a statement to CNN. They mentioned that the airport employee was interrogated on the circumstances of Griner’s detention and personal search, but that they could not publicly disclose any information revealed from his testimony.
Griner notably refused to speak on the charges in court, but her lawyers commented only that “She has the right to do so later.”
Will The U.S. Government Bring Brittney Griner Home?
Elizabeth Rood, U.S. Embassy Charge d’Affaires, attended Friday’s hearing and reiterated the government’s stance that Griner had been wrongfully detained. Rood added that "the practice of wrongful detention is unacceptable wherever it occurs and is a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad." She reported that she had been able to speak to Griner in the courtroom and that the athlete was doing “as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances, and she asked me to convey that she is in good spirits and is keeping up the faith. The U.S. government, from the highest levels, is working hard to bring Brittney and all wrongfully detained U.S. nationals home.”
For some of Griner’s supporters, including her wife Cherelle, these words are too little, too late. Cherelle Griner and numerous individuals and organizations have called on President Biden to strike an exchange deal for Brittney’s release as soon as possible.
"It's really, really difficult,” Cherelle Griner said in an interview with CNN. “This is not a situation where the rhetoric is matching the action. I do have to unfortunately push people to make sure that the things they're telling me is also matching their actions and so it's been the hardest thing to balance because I can't let up. It's over 130 days and BG's still not back."
Cherelle, along with Congresswoman Jackson Lee, is rallying Brittney's supporters to push for her release through the use of the hashtag #WeAreBG and a similarly-titled campaign.
Following this first hearing, Griner’s trial is set to resume on July 7.
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.
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Featured image: Brittney Griner; screengrab via ABC News