Nothing about Thursday’s proceedings at a Russian courthouse, where the WNBA star Britney Griner was on trial for drug trafficking, experts familiar with the Russian judicial process surprised. Griner was found guilty and sentenced to a penal colony for nine years – barely a year before the maximum sentence.
His sentencing was seen as a formality and a precondition for a prisoner exchange that could lead to his return to the United States.
“I think the negotiations will speed up now that the so-called legal process is final,” said Jonathan Franks, who worked with the family of Trevor R. Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was returned to the United States in a prisoner exchange with Russia in April. Reed was also sentenced to nine years jail after being convicted of assault, a charge his family considered spurious and politically motivated.
“One thing Americans need to understand is that we’re dealing with thugs,” Franks said. “People who take our people hostage or wrongfully detain them are just state-sponsored kidnappings. They are thugs. Sometimes to get the attention of thugs, they only understand force.
Last week, the US State Department said it had made a “substantial offerto 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 in prison. But now that Griner’s trial is over, experts said even more patience is needed from those who support her. After US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken publicly stated that the United States had offered Russia a deal, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said told reporters that the prisoner exchanges were negotiated discreetly.
William Pomeranz, acting director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on Russian law, said: “There is no incentive for Russia to do favors for the United States.”
“I am not optimistic that a diplomatic agreement will be reached soon,” he said, pointing to Peskov’s statement and the poor relations between the two countries because of the war in Ukraine.
Griner has been detained in Russia since February 1. On January 17, when Russian customs officers at an airport near Moscow said they found hash oil, a cannabis derivative, in a vape pen in his luggage. The US State Department announced in May that it considered Griner “wrongfully detained,” meaning her case would be handled by the president’s special envoy for hostage cases. The State Department said it would work to secure his release regardless of the end of his trial.
In the United States and Russia, Griner’s teammates and coaches offered their support. Members of his Russian team, UMMC Yekaterinburg, testified 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 her trial ended.
Nneka Ogwumike, President of the WNBA Players Union, posted a photo on Instagram of herself playing for her Russian team, Dynamo Kursk.
“Like me, she has fond memories of her playing time and has returned year after year to compete in Russia,” Ogwumike wrote. She added: “I ask that in honor of all our great experiences competing in Russia and around the world, out of love and humanity, you show him mercy and understanding. Please be nice to Brittney Griner.
Although the players’ pleas did not appear to affect the proceedings, they were in solidarity with Griner and her teammates at UMMC Yekaterinburg who spoke on her behalf, said Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a Russian historian who consulted with the players’ union during Griner’s detention.
“Brittney’s Russian teammates and her coach, those who testified on her behalf in Russia have really put themselves in danger because Russia has just passed even stricter laws on cooperation with foreigners,” said St. said Julian-Varnon. She said the WNBA players’ public statements “nodded to them and said they appreciated what they had done.”
St. Julian-Varnon began advising the union shortly after Griner’s arrest. She said early on that she told the players to expect a long process, that they shouldn’t expect Griner to be released before her trial, and that even if her sentence was light, that would mean at least five years.
Now that Griner has been sentenced, St. Julian-Varnon still urges caution.
“That doesn’t mean she’ll be involved in a prisoner swap soon,” she said. “Keep that in mind because it’s still a process, but it’s the next step in the process. It could take weeks. It could take months. A lot depends on Russia.
The fate of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star endured months in a Russian prison for smuggling hash oil into the country.
Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBA players’ union, said Griner’s sentencing won’t change how players support her. For months, they’ve spoken out publicly and made other shows of support, like wearing T-shirts with Griner’s initials and jersey number, 42.
“I feel really sad and sick for Brittney and hope she comes home as soon as possible,” said Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, a four-time All-Star who played with Griner in Russia. . “Now that the trial is over and the sentence has been handed down, I know she must be in a very emotional state and I just want her to know that we continue to do everything we can to bring her back to life. home.”
When 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 outside of government with the goal of bringing Brittney home as soon as possible.”
The strained relations between the United States and Russia did not ease in the months following Griner’s detention. She was imprisoned shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, and the United States sent military equipment to Ukraine in its fight against Russia. On Monday, the White House said it would send $550 million more weapons for Ukraine for the war.
St. Julian-Varnon said that could hamper negotiations for Griner’s release, which was not a problem for Russia. “It only hurts the credibility of the Biden administration,” she said. “There is no impetus for Russia to do anything immediately.”
This position will probably not sit well with Griner 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 potential prisoner swap for 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 recontact the elected officials with whom we discussed the critical nature of this matter?” Hatcher said. “A lot of times you just don’t have enough information. Now you have the information. Whatever was giving you hesitation, it’s been six months.”
Hatcher added, “Whatever trade needs to happen, let it happen. Make it happen.”