Olympic gold medalist and WNBA all-star Brittney Griner was convicted and sentenced to nine and a half years in prison in a Russian court outside Moscow on August 4. The sentence was the strictest allowed by law. Griner is the most prominent American jailed by a foreign government.
Judge Anna Sotnikova told the court she had determined that Griner intentionally broke the law. Sotnikova also fined Griner 1 million rubles (about $16,700). Sotnikova said the time Griner has served in custody — more than six months — would count toward her sentence.
Griner was deemed “wrongfully detained” by the U.S. State Department in May and U.S. officials have said they are working for her release.
The Biden administration’s commitment to working for Griner’s release was reaffirmed to PGN on August 9 in an exchange with the U.S. State Department. Moscow has been asked to accept a prisoner swap deal in which both Griner and former security consultant Paul Whelan would be freed.
Russia has not committed to any deal. The prisoner exchange is alleged to be for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death.” The State Department would not confirm this to PGN. But in an unprecedented move, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said publicly on July 27, without giving details, that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia for the release of Griner and Whelan.
Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on February 17 after Russian authorities said they found vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage. While medicinal and recreational cannabis are legal in many U.S. states, and Griner has a prescription for medical marijuana, both are illegal in Russia. Her defense team explained that, like many international athletes, Griner uses medicinal marijuana to help with pain due to sports injuries.
Griner has worked in Russia during the WNBA off-season since 2014 and has led her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, to consecutive championships.
Griner’s trial on drug smuggling charges began July 1. On July 4, Griner sent a letter to the White House appealing for her freedom directly to President Joe Biden. Griner wrote that she missed her wife, family and teammates, adding she spent the Fourth of July holiday thinking about the meaning of freedom.
Griner pleaded guilty on July 7 — a plea her advisors hoped would allow her to be released in a prisoner swap. Griner said in her plea and again in court, that she had packed quickly to leave for Russia and had no criminal intent in bringing the vape cartridges into the country. She said she had made “an honest mistake under stress.”
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner said in English, which was then translated to Russian for the court.
The drug smuggling charge has always been considered severe by legal experts and underscores why the State Department classified her case as wrongful detention. Charges of possession, storing, transporting and selling drugs in Russia are outlined in Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code. So many people are arrested under Article 228 that it has been nicknamed “the people’s article.” Its use is often considered controversial and manipulated by law enforcement officials. Human rights advocates are highly critical of Russian drug laws, accusing Russia of using punitive measures against detainees that violate human rights.
In July 2019, an American tourist from New York was arrested in St. Petersburg while vacationing with her mother and charged with drug smuggling. Audrey Lorber, 19, was in possession of 19 grams of marijuana — worth $375 in the U.S. — for which she had a prescription. She was detained, spent over two months in jail, and pleaded guilty to the charge of attempting to import drugs. The court found her guilty of “attempting to import marijuana purchased in the U.S. into Russia.”
But unlike Griner, Lorber, who is white and had far more marijuana than Griner in her possession was credited for time served and released. Her fine was also less than Griner’s: 15,000 rubles, or about $230.
Griner testified for the first time July 27. At that time she explained that when she was initially detained at the Moscow airport, an interpreter translated only small portions of what transpired. Griner said that officials told her to sign documents, but never explained what they said. She testified that she thought she was signing documents that would allow her to catch her next plane to Ekaterinburg.
Griner explained that in addition to the sketchy translation at the airport when she was first detained, she was never given an explanation of her rights. She also said she had no legal representation after she was detained at the airport.
Griner, who is not fluent in Russian, told the court that she used a translation app on her phone to discern what she was being told about her arrest. “Nobody explained anything to me,” Griner said.
During a hearing on August 2, Griner’s attorneys asserted that the state-appointed forensic expert who examined the cartridges found in Griner’s luggage made both technical and procedural errors. CBS News reported that Griner’s defense team brought in another forensic expert, Dmitry Gladyshev, to testify on her behalf.
“The examination [of the cartridges] does not comply with the legislation regarding the completeness of the study and does not comply with the norms of the [Russian Criminal] Code,” Gladyshev testified.
Despite these manifold discrepancies and Griner’s own testimony that she was denied her rights at the time she was detained, prosecutors had asked for a nine and a half year sentence, which is what Sotnikova handed down.
Defense attorney Maria Blagovolina told reporters in an impromptu press conference outside the court that Griner was “very upset, very stressed. She can hardly talk. It’s a difficult time for her.”
All Griner had said, as guards led her away, was “I love my family.”
The U.S. Embassy’s chargé d’affaires Elizabeth Rood called the verdict “a miscarriage of justice.”
After the sentencing, President Biden issued a statement saying, “American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”
In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols, whose work deals with issues involving Russia, nuclear weapons, and national security affairs, was succinct, noting: “Nine years? Brittney Griner is a political prisoner. Russia will regard any prisoner swap as a propaganda win. But the real message we can proclaim is about American values.”
The question of what happens now for Griner is unanswered and remains unanswerable. Griner has 10 days to appeal according to Russian law. Griner’s attorneys, who are not involved with the State Department’s efforts at a prisoner swap, are planning for a hearing in the coming days. Griner could also ask for a pardon from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The State Department referred PGN to a statement from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, but had no comment on the ongoing negotiations for her release.
On August 9, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson, who has been cited as helping to negotiate Griner’s and Whelan’s release, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he felt “relatively positive” that a prisoner swap could be orchestrated.
But Richardson said nothing is assured and alluded to Griner being a political pawn. “The relationship between the United States and Russia is quite toxic,” he explained. “The geopolitical differences many times override the humanitarian issues that we need to deal with.”
Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer who represents Americans held by foreign governments, told the New York Times, “I think the fact that Putin has not said yes right away means that he’s looked at the U.S. offer and said, ‘Well, that’s their first offer. I can get more than that.’”
Bishop William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, has called for a diverse, interfaith humanitarian delegation to travel to Russia to bring Griner home. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has spoken out publicly about Griner with her wife Cherelle, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “This is an absolute moral outrage for her to be given just about the maximum sentence of 10 years.”
Griner is expected to be sent to a Russian penal colony as her attorneys strategize her appeal. Most prisons in Russia are considered penal colonies because inmates are expected to perform various forms of intense labor during their prison term.
The Washington Post has reported on two high profile penal colony prisoners. Vladimir Putin opposition politician Alexei Navalny described the penal colonies where he’s been held, Penal Colony No. 2, as “our friendly concentration camp.”
Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova described the penal colony where she was held as expecting “slave-like labor — including 16 to 17 hours of work a day” from inmates. She also said she experienced “threats to her life at Penal Colony No. 14.”
It is expected that Griner will also face problems in any penal colony with the guards, as did Tolokonnikova, due to her lesbianism, her activism and being Black.
GLAAD said, “Many have viewed Griner’s arrest and imprisonment as a power move by Russian authorities seeking to use her as a political pawn.”
Sarah Kate Ellis, President and CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement, “Brittney Griner is a hero… Our community remains gravely concerned for Brittney’s safety and demand urgent action from the State Department and other appropriate agencies to bring her home immediately.”