Nothing about Thursday’s trial in a Russian court, where WNBA star Brittney Griner was tried on drug trafficking charges, surprised experts familiar with the Russian legal process. Griner was convicted and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony, just one year from the maximum sentence.
His sentence was thought to be a formality and a prerequisite for a prisoner exchange that could lead to his return to the United States.
“I think the negotiations will accelerate now that there is the purpose of the alleged judicial process,” said Jonathan Franks, who worked with the family of Trevor R. Reed, a former US Marine who was returned to the US in an exchange. of prisoners with Russia in April. Reed was also sentenced to nine years in prison after being convicted of assault, a charge considered false and politically motivated by his family.
“One thing Americans need to understand is that we’re dealing with thugs,” Franks said. “People who take ours hostage or unfairly detain them, it’s just a state sponsored kidnapping. They are thugs. Sometimes, to get the thugs’ attention, they only understand strength. “
Last week, the US State Department said it made a “substantial offer” to the Russian government for Griner and Paul N. Whelan, an American detained in Russia since 2018. Whelan was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years of imprisonment. prison imprisonment. But now that Griner’s trial is over, experts said even more patience would be needed on the part of those who support it. After US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken publicly stated that the United States had offered Russia a deal, Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson, told reporters that the prisoner exchanges were being negotiated silently.
William Pomeranz, interim director of the Kennan Institute and expert on Russian law, said: “There is no incentive for Russia to do any favors to the United States.”
“I am not optimistic that the diplomatic agreement can happen soon,” he said, pointing to Peskov’s declaration and the poor relations between the two countries due to the war in Ukraine.
Griner has been detained in Russia since February 17, when Russian customs officials at an airport near Moscow claimed to have found cannabis-derived hash oil in a vaporizer pen in her luggage. The US State Department announced in May that it believed Griner was “unfairly detained,” which meant her case would be handled by the presidential special envoy for hostage affairs. The State Department said she would work to get her released, regardless of how her trial ended.
In both the United States and Russia, Griner’s teammates and coaches have offered their support. Members of his Russian team, UMMC Yekaterinburg, were tested on Griner’s behalf during his trial.
In the United States, several WNBA players who had also played in Russia coordinated a social media campaign on Wednesday, the day before his trial ended.
Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA players union, posted on Instagram a photograph of herself playing for her Russian team, Dynamo Kursk.
“Like me, she has great memories of her time playing and has returned year after year to compete in Russia,” wrote Ogwumike. She added: “I ask that in honor of all our great experiences competing in Russia and in the world, for love and humanity, you show her mercy and understanding of her. Please be nice to Brittney Griner.
Although player appeals did not appear to influence the proceedings, they did have value in showing solidarity with Griner and his UMMC Yekaterinburg teammates who spoke on his behalf, said Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a Russian historian who is consulted with syndicated players during Griner’s detention.
“Brittney’s Russian teammates and her coach, the ones who tested for her in Russia have really put themselves at risk because Russia recently passed even stricter laws on cooperation with foreigners,” said St. Julian. Varnon. He said the WNBA players’ public statements were “nodding to them and saying they appreciated what they did”.
St. Julian-Varnon began counseling the union shortly after Griner’s detention. He said at the beginning that he told the players to expect a lengthy trial, that they shouldn’t have expected Griner’s release before the trial, and that even if his sentence was light, it would mean at least five years.
Now that Griner has been convicted, St Julian-Varnon still calls for caution.
“That doesn’t mean she’ll be involved in a prisoner swap anytime soon,” he said. “Keep that in mind because this is still a process, but it’s the next step in the process. It could be weeks. It could take months. Much depends on Russia ”.
The plight of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star endured months in a Russian prison on suspicion of smuggling hash oil into the country.
Terri Jackson, the executive director of the WNBA’s players union, said Griner’s belief won’t change the way players support her. For months they have spoken out publicly and given other demonstrations of support, such as wearing T-shirts with Griner’s initials and her jersey number, 42.
“I feel really sad and I feel bad for Brittney and hoping she gets home as soon as possible,” said Seattle Storm striker Breanna Stewart, a four-time All-Star who played with Griner in Russia. “Now that the trial is over and the sentence has taken place, I know that you must be in a very emotional state and I just want you to know that we are still continuing to do everything possible to bring her home.”
Asked if the NBA and WNBA would change anything about their tactics, Mike Bass, an NBA spokesperson, said both leagues would continue to support the State Department, the White House “and other allies inside and out. the government in an effort to get Brittney home as soon as possible. “
The tense relationship between the United States and Russia did not ease in the months following Griner’s detention. She was incarcerated shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the United States sent military equipment to Ukraine in her fight against Russia. On Monday, the White House said it would send $ 550 million in additional weapons to Ukraine for the war.
St. Julian-Varnon said this could hamper negotiations for Griner’s release, which was not a problem for Russia. “It just hurts the credibility of the Biden administration,” he said. “There is no impulse for Russia to do anything immediately.”
This position will most likely not go well with Griner’s supporters. Paris Hatcher is the executive director of Black Feminist Future, a social justice organization that created the #BringBrittneyHome hashtag campaign. She said her initial excitement about a possible prisoner swap with Griner dissipated after Thursday’s verdict.
Hatcher said the organization would consider options to keep Griner’s case at the forefront of politicians’ minds.
“Does this mean that we will return to contact the elected officials with whom we spoke about the critical nature of this case?” Hatcher said. “Often you don’t have enough information. You now have the information. Whatever made you hesitate, it’s been six months. “
Hatcher added: “Any trade that has to happen, let it happen. make it happen.”