Ultimate Resource On Brittney Griner Being Held In Russian Jail
Brittney Griner Is In Serious Trouble. Vladimir Putin is most likely using the WNBA superstar as a bargaining chip. Ultimate Resource On Brittney Griner Being Held In Russian Jail
The Soviet Union had a terrible track record of doing the same.
Like so much else in these difficult days, the fate of Brittney Griner rests in the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Women’s National Basketball Association superstar was arrested at a Moscow airport sometime in February on drug charges.
The fact that an American was arrested in Moscow isn’t unusual. Over 20,000 foreigners are convicted of felonies in Russia every year. About 10% are women.
Nevertheless, given the strange secrecy that shrouded Griner’s detention — Russian authorities have yet to say how long she’s been in custody — one cannot help hearing the echoes of history.
Toward the end of 1944, as World War II was winding down, the Red Army pressed into Polish and Romanian territory that had been held by the Nazis.
The Soviet Union suddenly had responsibility for millions of people who had previously been outside its borders. Among them were several thousand American servicemen taken prisoner by German forces.
The U.S. expected swift repatriation. But as historians have long noted, the Soviets decided instead to use the POWs as bargaining chips. At first, Russia denied that it had inherited any American prisoners at all. Even after admitting that the POWs indeed existed, Soviet officials refused to send them home.
At one point, a pair of U.S. officers were allowed to visit a prison camp in Poland where many were being held — and then were themselves refused permission to leave the country. Not until the end of the war did the Soviets agree to return the POWs to the United States.
In effect, the U.S. soldiers were hostages. A principal Soviet motive was ensuring the return of all their POWs formerly held by the Germans and now in Allied hands. The trouble was that thousands of captured Russian soldiers didn’t want to go home, not least because Stalin had decided to treat being taken prisoner as an offense.
Determined to get its own people back, the U.S. undertook a policy of forced repatriation, sending Soviet prisoners of war back to the U.S.S.R. Rather than return, many — some say hundreds — took their own lives.
A similar issue arose over the status of American-born citizens, men and women alike, who happened to be living in territory occupied by Soviet forces during the war. The Soviets announced that they were all now citizens of the U.S.S.R., and U.S. demands for repatriation were met with contempt.
Soviet citizens could not lose their citizenship, wrote the assistant commissar for foreign affairs, “merely by force of the fact of their birth on American territory.” Those who continued to insist that they weren’t Soviets were harassed and often arrested for parasitism and other crimes. Several hundred were sent to labor camps in the gulag.
Some observers connect the Soviet reluctance to send Americans home to the start of the Cold War. Maybe they’re right; it certainly sparked public outrage. What’s striking as we look back is the ability of the Soviet leadership to shrug off the world’s response. Stalin was determined to use detained U.S. citizens as bargaining chips, and, to a large extent, he succeeded.
As a result of Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine, relations with the U.S. are at their lowest point since those Cold War days. Putin gives every sign of sharing the view of his Communist predecessors that human beings exist to be sacrificed to his goals.
For Griner and other Americans caught up in Russia’s justice system, the risk of being treated like those the Soviets refused to repatriate after World War II is frighteningly real. One can scarcely imagine the fear and devastation Griner’s friends and loved ones are enduring.
Even in more normal times, the odds against Griner would be daunting. We do not have enough facts to say whether she did as Russia claims, but we can predict with confidence that if she goes to trial, Griner will be found guilty … even if she’s innocent.
The felony conviction rate in Russian courts is over 99%. It’s true that many cases are dismissed before trial, but these heavily reflect settlements between perpetrator and victim – an option not applicable in drug cases.
And even though since 2001 Russian law has permitted plea agreements, sentences based on those deals can still be harsh. Suspended sentences are largely reserved for those who have been charged but not detained.
Again, that’s in normal times — which these aren’t.
Unless higher authority intervenes, it’s tough to imagine a Russian judge or prosecutor giving a U.S. citizen, even one as prominent as Griner, anything but the harshest treatment.
On the other hand, the court would likely do exactly what Putin instructs. So even in this era of the new Cold War, the behind-the-scenes negotiations, if they’re real, provide some faint reason for hope. Let’s pray they succeed.
Basketball Star Brittney Griner’s Detention In Russia Extended By 2 Months
Order comes after WNBA star unsuccessfully challenged legality of arrest on drug charges.
American basketball star Brittney Griner was ordered held behind bars in Russia for another two months after unsuccessfully challenging the legality of her arrest on drug charges, her lawyer said.
Ms. Griner appeared on Thursday in a court outside of Moscow via video link, the first step in what is expected to be a long journey through the Russian legal system.
The Phoenix Mercury WNBA star was detained after flying into Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport a week before the war with Ukraine.
The Moscow region court on Thursday found that her subsequent arrest was legal, agreeing with the prosecution that it fell within the allowable 48-hour window after her detention.
The court rejected the argument of her lawyer, Alexander Boykov, that since Ms. Griner had been denied a lawyer and consular representation, her detention began as soon as she was stopped and searched on Feb. 17. Ms. Griner was ordered held until May 19.
The U.S. State Department has declined to comment on Ms. Griner’s case, citing privacy restrictions. U.S. consular officials haven’t been able to meet Ms. Griner, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on MSNBC.
The hearing didn’t examine the substance of the case, and it couldn’t be determined whether Ms. Griner would seek to appeal the decision about whether the arrest was lawful.
Russian authorities have said that a drug-sniffing dog smelled narcotics in Ms. Griner’s luggage, and X-ray screening found electronic vape cartridges with hashish oil, resulting in her arrest on charges of drug smuggling.
The U.S. State Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the case Thursday.
The WNBA star supplements her income by spending the league’s off season on the edge of Siberia. Basketball stars in Russia can command more than $1 million in salary and benefits.
Since 2014, Ms. Griner has played for the Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg, which is backed by the zinc and copper riches of the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Co. and its billionaire owners.
Two of the company’s recent owners, Iskander Makhumov and Andrei Bokarev, no longer have stakes in UMMC, the company said Monday.
Some Russian oligarchs are selling or restructuring their holdings in top Russian companies as Western countries are imposing sanctions on tycoons seen as close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
‘Free Brittney’: A Campaign To Release Brittney Griner Fills The Silence
As the WNBA star’s legal case in Russia plods, a push to secure her release is beginning in the U.S.
As one of the world’s best women’s basketball players sits in Russian custody, where the authorities say she is reading Dostoevsky and sleeping in a bed that’s too small for her, the future of WNBA star Brittney Griner is being determined on two parallel tracks outside her detention center.
The first runs through the Russian legal system, where a low-profile, paper-driven affair is likely to drag for months and offers little hope of success for Griner, whose detention was extended to May 19 on Thursday as investigators seek to build a drug case against her.
The second is happening closer to home, as an emerging political campaign in the U.S. tries to rally support for negotiations to secure her release. It’s being driven by members of Congress and WNBA fans, and it’s directed not at Russian leaders but fellow Americans.
The noise is a departure from the approach her family and advisers have taken since mid-February: public silence.
Beyond confirming her arrest in brief statements, they have said little since their strategy was upended by Russian state media releasing the news and publishing Griner’s mug shot in early March, three weeks after she was taken into custody and two weeks after Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Ukraine.
A person close to the situation said they knew that Griner is “OK and her Russian legal team has seen her multiple times a week over the entire course of her detention.”
She is being held in a cell with two other women and has been reading an unspecified book by Fyodor Dostoevsky and a biography of a Rolling Stones musician, according to Russian state-news agency TASS, which cited the Moscow commission that monitors the treatment of prisoners. It also said that her bed is too small for Griner, a 6-foot-9 woman who can dunk a basketball.
Now, even as Griner’s wife and representatives continue to lay low, the campaign for her release is beginning around them.
U.S. politicians, activists and elected officials are cranking the pressure. Tens of thousands of WNBA fans have signed an online petition pushing for U.S. efforts to secure Griner’s release. Some lawmakers have slammed Putin and urged President Biden to take unspecified action.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined the chorus of Americans tweeting the movement’s cri de cœur: “Free Brittney.”
The chances of any sort of resolution in the near future are slim, especially amid war and the frostiest U.S.-Russia relations since the Cold War.
But as Griner’s case plods through the Russian court system with little chance of success, it’s becoming clear that the U.S. government could play as significant a role in her freedom as the Putin administration.
Russian legal experts caution that Griner’s prospects of winning dwindle as her case proceeds in a country with stringent drug laws and harsh enforcement. They weren’t high to begin with.
Griner was stopped at Moscow’s airport on Feb. 17 for allegedly carrying electronic vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage while traveling back to her team in Yekaterinburg, but her arrest didn’t become public until March 5.
She appeared virtually in court on Thursday, when her Russian attorney challenged the legality of her detention and asked for a transfer to house arrest, arguing that she had been denied a lawyer and consular representation.
The court rejected that argument and extended Griner’s detention through May 19.
The extension was a move that some Russian legal scholars struggled to understand on the merits, since the facts appear to be straightforward, even as they predicted it could happen and acknowledged the potential for political factors to influence Griner’s case.
“We have seen in the past that for particular cases of interest or high importance to the state, the rules that are supposed to apply to everyone suddenly stop applying,” said Jeffrey Kahn, a Southern Methodist University law professor. “A case becomes politicized in ways that are impossible to trace through law.”
But politics could also ultimately be Griner’s ticket home, they recognized.
“This is a problem that’s probably not going to be solved by a lawyer,” said Drew Holiner, an attorney who specializes in Russian law.
That’s why the burgeoning “Free Brittney” campaign isn’t meant to be heard in Russian courtrooms. It’s aimed at the potential negotiators in the U.S.
Some families with experience dealing with circumstances similar to Griner’s believe that kind of political pressure at home is what it will ultimately take to win the release of a U.S. citizen held in Russia.
Paula and Joey Reed say they spent their retirement savings on hiring a legal defense for the Russian trial of their son Trevor, who was in pretrial detention for nearly a year before he was found guilty in July 2020 of assaulting two police officers and sentenced to nine years in prison.
The idea wasn’t to win his release by trial but to make sure that people in the U.S. understood that he was being treated unfairly and merited their support, Joey Reed said.
The Reeds now say they were naive to pursue silence as a strategy in the initial months following their son’s arrest, when they say he was embarrassed and asked them not to talk about it publicly.
They changed course after four months when they spoke with the family of Paul Whelan, another Marine Corps veteran detained in Russia on espionage charges. Now their campaign has a website, a PR consultant and the aid of nonprofits with expertise in hostage cases.
They see a prisoner exchange involving their son, and now Griner, as a possibility that they say Putin and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov have previously indicated they would support.
The Reeds say they don’t understand the reluctance of U.S. officials to have completed the swap in the months leading up to the war, which they know significantly complicates matters.
While they sympathize with the torrent of emotions that Griner’s family is experiencing, they also can’t help but hope that the attention surrounding her case may help their son, too.
“As horrible as it is for her to be detained there, we believe that may be the only way for our government to begin negotiation,” said Joey Reed. “She’s brought a lot more attention to all this than the two Marines ever received.”
So far, the White House has remained noticeably quiet, deflecting questions about her specific circumstances and speaking in general, diplomatic terms, since Griner has not signed a Privacy Act waiver authorizing them to discuss her case.
Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki offered another explanation to their approach. “We typically do not get into specifics because that is not constructive to bringing people home,” she said.
On Thursday, the State Department started to become more forthcoming. “We are closely engaged on this case and in frequent contact with Brittney Griner’s legal team.
We insist the Russian government provide consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia, including those in pretrial detention, as Brittney Griner is. We have repeatedly asked for consular access to these detainees and have consistently been denied access,” a State Department official said.
The reticence of Griner’s team and official diplomatic channels to negotiate in public has left a void for others to fill.
Griner’s case has drawn particular attention from Black lawmakers. Some have taken a muted path, focusing on the question of Griner’s consular access, which was first raised by Rep. Colin Allred (D., Texas).
The State Department said Thursday that consular officials haven’t been able to meet Griner. Russians have been reported saying that U.S. officials haven’t attempted to visit Griner in person.
Other lawmakers have pierced the silence around Griner with fiery rhetoric.
Reps. Byron Donalds (R., Florida) and Burgess Owens (R., Utah), sent a letter to Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week urging them to not leave Griner in Russia, which they called a “hellhole of a country” under the control of a “heinous and deranged dictator.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas) used similarly combative language in calling attention to Griner, even as Griner’s team seems to prefer the opposite approach.
“The fight is on,” Jackson Lee said last week at a congressional retreat, where some legislators in the Congressional Black Caucus indicated they had spoken directly with the White House about the case. “We’ve got our boxing gloves on, because we’re not going to leave her without any ammunition.”
Brittney Griner Spoke With US Diplomats At Court Hearing In Russia
US basketball star and Olympian Brittney Griner spoke briefly with American diplomats on the sidelines of a court hearing in Russia, where she has been detained since February for allegedly possessing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.
Griner, 31, is “doing as well as can be expected under what can only be described as exceedingly difficult circumstances,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on a call Friday morning. A consular official from the US embassy in Moscow spoke with the Phoenix Mercury player on the margins of the hearing, Price said.
US officials have said the WNBA player is being wrongly detained, a signal they believe Griner’s case is political, not criminal. Her hearing on Friday came against the backdrop of the standoff between Moscow and Washington over the war in Ukraine.
Griner’s lawyer told the Associated Press that the athlete’s detention was extended at the hearing for another month. She appeared at the court handcuffed, the AP reported.
Last month’s release of Trevor Reed, a former US Marine who had been detained in Russia for three years, in exchange for a Russian national convicted in the US on drug trafficking conspiracy charges, has prompted calls for the Biden administration to negotiate a similar deal for Griner.
Brittney Griner’s Trial On Drug Charges Formally Begins In Russia
The WNBA star, who has been detained since February, was handcuffed to a guard as she entered court. The trial continues on Friday.
The trial of the U.S. women’s basketball star Brittney Griner formally began in Russia on Monday, with a court addressing administrative matters in a drug case that is unfolding amid a historic low in relations between the two countries.
A court in the Moscow region town of Khimki extended Griner’s detention by six months, through Dec. 20, in a closed-door hearing that also signaled the start of the trial, the court said.
Griner’s lawyer, Alexander Boykov, confirmed to The Wall Street Journal that the trial had begun and the next court session is scheduled for this Friday, July 1.
The WNBA star is expected to appear in court on Friday, her lawyer said, but neither he nor the court would reveal details of the anticipated proceedings for that day.
Boykov said Monday that Griner had not submitted a plea. The extension of her arrest means that she is all but certain to remain behind bars for the length of the trial. Russian criminal court proceedings can be notoriously long, potentially spanning months.
Russian television footage showed Ms. Griner arriving at the court wearing a gray T-shirt and glasses. She was handcuffed to a guard who guided her into court, surrounded by other guards, all wearing black bullet-proof vests.
One of the WNBA’s most famous players, Griner was arrested in mid-February by Russian customs officials at a Moscow airport on suspicion of drug smuggling while traveling back to play for the Russian team that has long employed her in her WNBA off-season, UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Authorities said they found vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage. The charges on which she is being held carry a prison sentence up to 10 years.
The U.S. State Department has declared that Ms. Griner is being wrongfully detained, a move that effectively commits the U.S. to securing her release. Her supporters have become increasingly vocal in demanding her immediate freedom, calling on the U.S. to do whatever is necessary to bring her home.
Russian authorities have floated—and quickly pulled back—the prospect of releasing Griner in exchange for the U.S. freeing a prominent Russian businessman convicted of arms dealing, Viktor Bout.
But such a trade is complicated by a number of factors, among them the fact that Bout has previously been mentioned as a swap candidate for Paul Whelan, a former Marine who has been held in Russia since 2018, and whom the U.S. also considers to be wrongfully detained. Whelan was convicted of espionage in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CNN on Sunday that the release of Griner and other detained Americans was “an absolute priority.” American officials have repeatedly declined to go into the specifics of any negotiations for their releases.
“I’ve got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home, and that includes Paul Whelan and that includes Brittney Griner. That includes people in a number of other countries. In fact, I spoke to Brittney Griner’s wife just a few days ago. I spoke to the families of many detained Americans this week,” Blinken said in an interview with CNN.
“We have a regular dialogue with them and no higher priority. I can’t comment in any detail on what we’re doing except to say this is an absolute priority.”
Brittney Griner Makes Direct Plea To White House After Being Detained In Russia
President Biden is sent a handwritten letter from Phoenix Mercury star, on trial on drug charges.
Women’s professional basketball star Brittney Griner made a direct plea to President Biden to work to free her and other Americans detained abroad, in a handwritten letter delivered Monday to the White House.
“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Ms. Griner wrote, according to excerpts provided by her agent.
Mr. Biden read the letter, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday afternoon.
“This is an issue that is a priority for this president,” she said. “He believes that any U.S. national that is held abroad or detained or held hostage abroad, we need to bring back safely and we are going to use every tool that we possibly can to make that happen.”
She didn’t provide details of any meeting with the family, though she noted conversations with top administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
“Clearly, we believe she’s wrongfully detained,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said. “We believe she needs to come home.”
Ms. Griner, 31 years old, who plays for the Women’s National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Mercury, has been jailed since mid-February, when she was stopped at a Moscow airport and accused of bringing hashish oil into the country as she was traveling to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, the professional team where she has long spent the WNBA offseason.
Russia invaded Ukraine a week after her detention, returning U.S.-Russian relations to historic lows.
Russian prosecutors have charged Ms. Griner with intentionally importing drugs into Russia, according to the Russian state news agency TASS, which was one of the outlets allowed to send reporters inside the courtroom for a hearing last week.
Ms. Griner had bought “two cartridges for personal use,” containing 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hashish oil, totaling 0.702 grams, despite knowing that “the movement of drugs isn’t allowed” into Russia, TASS reported.
Prospects for an acquittal are low for charges that upon conviction carry a sentence of up to 10 years. The U.S. has declared her to be wrongfully detained by Russia, effectively committing the government to securing her release.
Negotiations stand to be even more complicated than such transactions usually are. Russia has floated the prospect—then pulled it back—of freeing Ms. Griner in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian convicted of arms dealing.
Ms. Griner’s supporters haven’t specified how they want her to be released, other than that they want the White House to do whatever is necessary.
Supporters of Trevor Reed, an American freed in April through a prisoner swap, have said that securing such deals often rests on rallying public support at home and keeping up pressure on the U.S. government.
Ms. Griner isn’t the only American considered wrongfully detained in Russia. U.S. officials are also facing calls to bring back Paul Whelan, a former Marine held since 2018, convicted of espionage in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years.
Other excerpts released from Ms. Griner’s letter emphasized the toll of her imprisonment, her patriotism and support for the president.
“On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran. It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year,” one excerpt read.
“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees,” she wrote in another. “Please do all you can to bring us home…I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”
Russian officials deny that she has been taken as a kind of hostage—an accusation levied by some American politicians—and have sought to distance the Kremlin from the legal proceedings.
Brittney Griner Pleads Guilty To Russian Drug Charges In Bid For Leniency
The women’s basketball star acknowledged that she was carrying hashish oil in her luggage, but said she did not mean to break Russian drug laws.
Women’s basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in court outside Moscow on Thursday, hoping to secure a more lenient sentence, her lawyers said, in what has become a thorny geopolitical fight between the U.S. and Russia.
Russian prosecutors have said Ms. Griner was carrying two vape cartridges containing a total of 0.702 grams of hashish oil when she was stopped at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in mid-February while traveling back to play for the Russian team where she has long spent the WNBA off-season, UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Russia invaded Ukraine a week later, plunging relations between the U.S. and Russia to historic lows.
“She decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people,” said Ms. Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, a partner at the Moscow-based Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm, and Alexander Boykov from Moscow Legal Center, after the hearing.
“Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence.”
Outlining the charges last Friday, prosecutors said the cartridges were for her personal use, but that it was a crime to bring them into Russia. Ms. Griner’s charges carry a potential prison sentence of up to 10 years, Russian state media has reported.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Ms. Griner said in English, which was then translated into Russian, Reuters reported.
Russia’s Interfax news agency reported Ms. Griner as saying that “what happened” was that she had “packed in a hurry.”
The quantity of hashish oil that Griner has been accused of carrying could have been legally possessed in Arizona, where she lives, and 18 other U.S. states, according to NORML, an American group that advocates for marijuana drug law changes.
Griner’s lawyer Ms. Blagovolina confirmed the plea.
The next hearing in Griner’s case is scheduled for July 14 and her legal team say they now expect the trial to conclude around the beginning of August.
Ms. Griner will present her testimony and her defense team will present witnesses in her defense at the next hearing, Mr. Boykov said.
The U.S. had taken the unusually swift step of declaring Ms. Griner to be wrongfully detained in Russia even before her trial began, a move that effectively commits them to securing her release. Officials have not said what that determination was based on.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the guilty plea “will have no impact” on the U.S. efforts on Ms. Griner’s behalf.
“He is going to do everything that he can to make sure she gets home safely. This is top of mind.”
But American lawyers have said that in some cases, the U.S. government can intervene in cases where a citizen is in danger of being punished excessively or there is a suspicion that charges have been overblown for political purposes.
Russia has denied that Ms. Griner is being used as a political pawn.
Hours before Ms. Griner pleaded guilty, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had criticized attempts in the U.S. to “make noise” around her case, and chafed at the American characterization that Ms. Griner is being improperly held in Russia, in comments reported by TASS.
“The persistence with which the U.S. administration and representatives of relevant structures in Washington refer to those who receive sentences from us for serious crimes, and those who are waiting for the completion of investigations as detainees, reflects Washington’s unwillingness to perceive the world around us properly,” Mr. Ryabkov told journalists, according to TASS.
“We have a long-established form of discussing these issues,” he added. “Attempts by the American side to escalate and make noise on this topic in public are understandable, but they do not help practically resolve issues.”
Ms. Griner’s agent, family and supporters have ramped up their campaign for the U.S. to negotiate her release in recent weeks, including, on Monday, delivering a handwritten letter from her to the White House in which she directly pleaded with President Biden to secure her freedom.
Elizabeth Rood, charge d’affaires for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said that she had been able to share a response from Mr. Biden with Ms. Griner in the courtroom on Thursday.
“She said that she is eating well. She’s able to read books and under the circumstances, she’s doing well,” Ms. Rood said.
“I would like again to emphasize the commitment of the United States government, at the very highest levels, to bring home safely Ms. Griner and all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained, as well as the commitment of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to care for and protect the interests of all U.S. citizens detained or imprisoned in Russia.”
Russian officials have previously floated the prospect—then pulled it back—of freeing Ms. Griner in a prisoner exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian convicted of arms dealing.
The U.S. and Russia have carried out such trades over the last sixty years, including as late as April, when American Trevor Reed was swapped for Russian Konstantin Yaroshenko. But such trades are the subject of tension in the United States, including reflexive opposition from the Department of Justice.
A State Department spokesperson reiterated on Thursday following Ryabkov’s remarks that “the Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner.” and that “using the practice of wrongful detention as a bargaining chip represents a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad. The United States opposes this practice everywhere.”
Ms. Griner is not the only American considered wrongfully detained in Russia. The U.S. has made the same designation for Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine held in Russia since 2018, convicted of espionage in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years.
It was not immediately clear if Ms. Griner’s plea stood to speed up the proceedings, or any negotiations, though Mr. Ryabkov had also indicated on Thursday that Moscow would be willing to negotiate after the completion of Ms. Griner’s trial.
He told reporters “that since the necessary judicial procedures have not been completed there are not even formal procedural grounds for any further steps,” according to TASS.
Brittney Griner’s Russian Basketball Team Testifies In Her Defense At Drug Trial
UMMC Ekaterinburg figures describe the WNBA star’s contributions, as she makes a bid for leniency in her sentence.
Brittney Griner’s Russian drug trial continued on Thursday with defense witnesses emphasizing the American basketball star’s contributions to the Russian professional basketball team where she has played since 2014.
Ms. Griner has pleaded guilty to bringing hashish oil into Russia but said it was accidental. She has become entangled in broader U.S.-Russian tensions not seen in decades, roiling both countries.
In the U.S., her supporters have complained that she is not getting help from her own government fast enough. Russian officials have publicly chafed at the idea that her case is being politicized, but also signaled that her fate could be renegotiated after the trial has concluded.
Prominent figures from the UMMC Ekaterinburg basketball club that Ms. Griner played for in Russia were called to the stand on Thursday by her defense lawyers, as Ms. Griner makes a bid for leniency in her sentence. Before the invasion of Ukraine, Russian clubs drew many prominent American players during the WNBA offseason—and the players enjoyed lavish benefits.
“Everything went according to plan today,” said Alexander Boykov, one of Ms. Griner’s lawyers, from Moscow Legal Center.
Mr. Boykov said the witnesses included Maxim Ryabkov, the general manager of UMMC Ekaterinburg; Evgeniia Beliakova, the team’s captain; as well as the club’s head doctor, Anatolii Kalabin.
On the witness stand, Mr. Ryabkov noted Ms. Griner’s abilities as a player and team leader had helped the team reach the top in Russia’s basketball premier league, according to Maria Blagovolina, partner of the law firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners.
Mr. Boykov said that both Mr. Ryabkov and Ms. Beliakova explained Ms. Griner’s contributions were not just for their team, but for women’s basketball in Russia generally.
With Ms. Griner on board, the team won the EuroLeague championship several times, which allowed more Russian teams to compete in the league, according to its rules, Mr. Boykov said.
The maximum of three Russian teams made it to the EuroLeague, he said, until Russia was suspended from participation this year.
The next hearing is expected tomorrow, when the defense will present numerous documents and other written material, Mr. Boykov said, declining to comment further.
Ms. Griner’s trial has been under way since June 27 in a courtroom in Khimki, outside Moscow.
She has been charged with two offenses: illegally possessing narcotic substances without the purpose of selling them, and smuggling of narcotic substances in a significant amount, according to her lawyers.
The total sentence for the charges could be up to 10 years in prison.
Russian prosecutors have said Ms. Griner was carrying two vape cartridges containing a total of 0.702 grams of hashish oil when she was stopped at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in mid-February while traveling back to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg. Russia invaded Ukraine a week later.
Ms. Griner entered a guilty plea last week, acknowledging that she had carried the vape cartridges into the country, but that she had packed them in a hurry and didn’t intend to break Russian laws.
The quantity of hashish oil that Ms. Griner has been accused of carrying could have been legally possessed in Arizona, where she lives, and 18 other U.S. states, according to NORML, an American group that advocates for marijuana drug law changes.
Her lawyers said after the plea that Ms. Griner hoped it would help her in sentencing.
“Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence,” said Ms. Blagovolina and Mr. Boykov, after that hearing.
The U.S. had taken the unusually swift step of declaring Ms. Griner to be wrongfully detained in Russia even before her trial began, a move that effectively commits them to securing her release. Officials haven’t said what that determination was based on.
There are complicating factors in Ms. Griner’s release even beyond the frosty interactions of two hostile superpowers: the presence of another American deemed wrongfully detained in Russia, the former Marine Paul Whelan, and tensions within the U.S. government over prisoner exchanges, the way that several Americans have been released over the past few decades.
Russian leaders have denied that Ms. Griner is being held for any reason other than being found with drugs. At the same time, they have signaled they are open to exchanging her, potentially for a Russian who is 10 years into his sentence in the U.S. for arms dealing, Viktor Bout.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday declined to discuss the question of a potential exchange of Ms. Griner, according to a report of his comments at a press conference by Russian state media.
Brittney Griner Says She Had a Medical Marijuana Prescription for the Drugs She Brought Into Russia
The women’s basketball star, who has pleaded guilty, also emphasized her large Russian tax payments.
Brittney Griner had an Arizona doctor’s prescription to use marijuana for medical purposes, leading to the women’s basketball star having vape cartridges with hashish oil in her belongings when she flew to Russia in mid-February, her defense lawyers said Friday.
Ms. Griner presented the prescription along with other written evidence in her defense as her trial continued in a Khimki courtroom, outside Moscow, her lawyers said after the day’s proceedings ended.
“Among the medical documents is a doctor’s prescription for the substance that, due to an oversight, Brittney Griner left among her belongings when crossing the border,” said Maria Blagovolina, partner at the law firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners.
Her other lawyer, Alexander Boykov of Moscow Legal Center, said that Ms. Griner’s prescription was to help her cope with pain.
Ms. Griner, like many American basketball players, came regularly to Russia during the WNBA offseason, where the players enjoyed lavish pay and treatment. A week after she was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, Russia invaded Ukraine.
It plunged relations between the U.S. and Russia to a new low and also suspended Russia’s participation in international sports.
Her attorneys also submitted tax returns showing that Ms. Griner had paid a large amount of taxes in the Russian Federation as a result of her salary from UMMC Ekaterinburg, the powerhouse team she had played for since 2014.
And they offered letters of support from various organizations in Yekaterinburg, including the team, the Russian Basketball Federation, and USA Basketball, the governing body for whom Ms. Griner was on two Olympic gold-medal winning teams.
The UMMC Ekaterinburg general manager, team captain and team doctor had testified in Ms. Griner’s defense a day earlier, the general manager emphasizing that with Ms. Griner on board, the team won the EuroLeague championship several times, which allowed more Russian teams to compete in the league, according to its rules.
Ms. Griner has been charged with two offenses: illegally possessing narcotic substances without the purpose of selling them, and smuggling of narcotic substances in a significant amount, according to her lawyers.
The total sentence for the charges could be up to 10 years in prison.
Ms. Griner entered a guilty plea last week, telling the court that she had carried the vape cartridges into the country, but that she had packed them in a hurry and didn’t intend to break Russian laws.
The quantity of hashish oil that Ms. Griner has been accused of carrying could have been legally possessed in Arizona, where she lives, and 18 other U.S. states, according to NORML, an American group that advocates for marijuana drug law changes.
Her lawyers said after the plea that Ms. Griner hoped it would help her in sentencing.
Medical marijuana enjoys relatively little support as a concept among the Russian public, and possession of any amount of marijuana is treated as a serious crime under Russian law.
In a poll by state-run pollster VTsIOM in 2018, 89 percent of respondents said they were against the idea of legalizing the drug for medical purposes.
Ms. Griner’s Friday court session lasted less than an hour, and the trial will resume July 26, when the defense will present further evidence, Mr. Boykov said.
U.S. Presses Offer To Free Brittney Griner And Paul Whelan From Russian Detention
Remarks from Secretary of State Antony Blinken came hours after Griner testified in her trial.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that the U.S. had made a “substantial proposal” to free women’s basketball star Brittney Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, from Russian detention, but the overture has not been accepted.
The U.S. offered to release Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in order to secure the freedom of Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Blinken’s remarks came hours after Ms. Griner testified in her Russia drug trial that she had inadvertently packed the hashish oil that led to her arrest five months ago.
The U.S. basketball star has been seeking leniency at the trial, with charges that carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years, by pleading guilty and attempting to explain the circumstances of her drug possession.
The trial had long been expected to preface intensified efforts by the U.S. to negotiate her release, at a time of historically tense relations between the two superpowers.
Mr. Blinken told reporters he planned to speak directly in the coming days with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov for the first time since the invasion of Ukraine, and that he planned to raise Ms. Griner’s case, as well as that of Mr. Whelan, a former Marine convicted of espionage who has been detained since 2018.
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” Mr. Blinken said. “Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope move us toward a resolution.”
A Russian foreign ministry official appeared to deny that a proposal had been made, saying: “Aside from media reports, there were no appeals. We are focusing on normal diplomatic practice, not megaphone diplomacy.”
Ms. Griner’s Russian lawyers said they had learned of a U.S. offer from the news, but believed it could not be completed until after her trial.
“From a legal point of view, the exchange is possible only after a court verdict. In any case, we will be glad if Brittney will be home soon and we hope that this will happen,” they said.
Ms. Griner said in a courtroom in Khimki, on the sixth day of her trial, that she was surprised to see that hashish oil was in her luggage when she arrived in Russia in mid-February to play for her professional team there.
She said she had packed in a hurry and was tired, stressed and on a tight schedule after contracting Covid during a break for international play in the Russian basketball schedule.
“During the inspection, I myself did not expect to see these drugs there. I had no intention of violating any law of the Russian Federation,” she said, speaking through a translator.
“I think I was in a hurry and still not fully recovered, so I dumped everything in a bag,” Ms. Griner said, according to a report from Russian state news agency TASS.
Ms. Griner said she had decided to return to Russia, despite concerns over the growing international tensions, because she could not let down her team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, according to Russian news agency Interfax.
“She explained to the court that she knows and respects Russian laws,” said Maria Blagovolina, partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm, who is one of Ms. Griner’s lawyers.
The trial will resume Aug. 2, with her lawyers expecting the sentencing to come in mid-August.
Russian prosecutors have said Ms. Griner was carrying two vape cartridges containing a total of 0.702 grams of hashish oil when she was stopped at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
She said in court on Wednesday that her rights were not read to her during that arrest, according to another one of her lawyers, Alexander Boykov of the Moscow Legal Center.
A week after she landed and was detained, Russia invaded Ukraine, and U.S.-Russian relations plummeted to lows not seen since the Cold War.
The Biden administration has almost completely severed ties with Russia since then, imposed a raft of sanctions alongside Western countries as well as sending advanced weapons to Ukraine.
Russia has repeatedly denied that Ms. Griner is being held as a pawn or bargaining chip, with officials saying that any discussion over her release is inappropriate before her trial has concluded.
Shortly before Ms. Griner pleaded guilty earlier in July, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had criticized attempts in the U.S. to “make noise” around her case, especially coming ahead of the completion of her trial.
Mr. Ryabkov added that “since the necessary judicial procedures have not been completed there are not even formal procedural grounds for any further steps.”
In a trial that began late June, Ms. Griner’s Russian lawyers have repeatedly sought to make a case for her to be considered favorably when she is sentenced—and potentially to a U.S. audience as well, as her supporters push the Biden administration to get her home quickly.
U.S. officials had previously declined to discuss the specifics of their negotiating efforts for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, who is also officially considered by the State Department to be wrongfully detained.
But much of the public discussion around potential negotiations has revolved around Mr. Bout, who was sentenced in 2012 to serve 25 years for conspiring to sell weapons to people he believed represented Colombia’s FARC rebels but were actually DEA agents. CNN on Wednesday earlier reported the U.S. had offered to free Mr. Bout in exchange for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan.
“The president is prepared to make tough decisions if it means the safe return of Americans,” Mr. Blinken said in response to a question about exchanging Mr. Bout, declining to elaborate on the U.S. proposal.
“I’m just not going to get into it publicly,” he said.
Russian state media said in May that Mr. Bout was a possible swap candidate for Ms. Griner, citing sources in the prison monitoring commission who said that talks were already under way.
Those reports were dismissed days later by Russia’s foreign ministry as premature. Mr. Bout had previously been floated in relation to Paul Whelan.
David Whelan, a family spokesman, said he did not know what the U.S. had offered to secure his brother’s release, adding that Russia’s lack of acceptance of the current U.S. offer could either mean the U.S. has fewer options available to free his brother, or that officials have not found the right concession yet. He also said, though, that it could mean little ahead of Ms. Griner’s trial wrapping up.
Paul Whelan, a Michigan former Marine holding U.S., U.K., Canadian and Irish passports, has been held in Russia since 2018. He was convicted in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
His siblings have pleaded with the Biden administration to use any tactic that will bring him home so that their elderly parents can ever see him again.
They have openly suggested the return of Russian diplomatic properties seized during the Obama administration, or the inclusion of the detained Americans in a broader conversation around the sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine.
Ms. Griner’s best hopes have been thought to lie in a prisoner exchange between the two governments, akin to one in late April that swapped former Marine Trevor Reed for Russian citizen Konstantin Yaroshenko.
US Looks To Swap Brittney Griner And Paul Whelan For Russian Arms Dealer Viktor Bout
* Blinken To Talk To Lavrov First Time Since Ukraine Invasion
* Russia Says No Deal Yet As Two-For-One Deal Questioned
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US has made a “substantial” offer to Russia to free imprisoned Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, but the Kremlin said no deal has been reached yet.
The US proposal would swap the two for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, whose release Moscow has long sought, according to a person familiar with the plan. Blinken said he will discuss the issue in a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The call, announced in comments to reporters Wednesday, would come amid continuing sharp exchanges over the war in Ukraine. Blinken last spoke with Lavrov on Feb. 15 and then canceled a planned meeting with him two days before Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24.
The Biden administration has declined to comment on whether it would agree to release Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US, as part of a swap for women’s basketball star Griner and Whelan, a former US Marine.
The US previously had spurned the possibility of an exchange to free Bout, saying he was guilty of extensive illicit arms sales.
The US has already offered a swap for Bout but Moscow so far hasn’t accepted it, according to the person familiar with the proposal, who asked not to be identified discussing the negotiations. CNN reported earlier Wednesday that handing over Bout was part of the pending offer.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday there’s “no agreements” on any swap yet, noting that such matters usually aren’t discussed publicly until a deal is reached. But prisoners-rights activists said Russia is unlikely to accept a deal for both Griner and Whelan for Bout alone.
“Russian authorities will demand that Bout be swapped for only one American — and that will be Griner — or two for two,” said Eva Merkacheva. “Whelan, in the view of our authorities, is valuable to the Americans and they will ask for someone else in exchange for him.”
Ivan Melnikov, a prisoners-rights ombudsman with knowledge of the swap negotiations, said, “They were talking about one for one — Bout for Griner — and now they’ve added Whelan.”
Blinken declined to comment on Bout, saying only that Biden is willing to make “tough decisions” to free imprisoned Americans. At the White House, John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters, “I’m not going to negotiate this thing in public, and I’m not going to talk about specific individuals.”
Griner, a player for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury who plays for a Russian team during the off-season, was arrested in February after Russian customs officials said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner pleaded guilty to smuggling charges this month, saying the infraction was unintentional, in a move that could pave the way for a prisoner exchange.
Her Russian defense team is not involved in swap negotiations and any such deal would be possible only after the court issues a verdict, which is expected early next month, according to lawyer Maria Blagovolina.
Although Griner has attracted global headlines, Whelan, a former US Marine who was convicted of spying in 2020, has been in Russian custody far longer — since 2018. Biden spoke with Whelan’s sister this month, pledging to continue working for his release and that of other Americans wrongfully detained abroad.
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” Blinken said Wednesday of Griner and Whelan. “Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal.”
Blinken said he intends to use the conversation with Lavrov “to follow up personally and, I hope, move us toward a resolution.”
Whelan’s lawyer, Vladimir Zherebenkov, told Tass a deal is “theoretically” possible.
Relatives of both Whelan and Griner have criticized the Biden administration over the length of their family members’ detentions and Washington’s apparent inability to secure their release.
“Our family appreciates the Biden administration seeking Paul’s release using the resources it has available,” Whelan’s brother David said in an emailed statement. “We hope that the Russian government responds to the US government and accepts this or some other concession that enables Paul to come home to his family.”
On the war in Ukraine, Blinken predicted that Russia’s next move will be to conduct “sham” referendums in captured Ukrainian territory. The top US diplomat said the war has “weakened Russia profoundly” despite President Vladimir Putin’s claims of success.
Russia Wants Two Prisoners In Swap For Americans Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan
* Putin Not Ready To Swap Griner, Whelan For Arms Dealer Bout
* Russia Could Demand Kremlin Insider Extradited Last Year To US
Moscow is leaning toward rejecting a prisoner swap unless it gets two Russians in return for the two Americans the US wants released, according to people familiar with the Kremlin’s thinking.
The US has called on Russia to free WNBA player Brittney Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, offering to free convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Discussions have been stop-start since June, with Moscow reluctant to agree to a deal it sees as unequal, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing confidential matters.
Russia has not yet supplied a detailed response to the American proposal, another person familiar with the discussions said.
The delicate nature of the discussions shows the level of mistrust that has only heightened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
The US has strongly supported the government in Kyiv with weapons and financial aid, and President Joe Biden has called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and “murderous dictator.”
Biden is under pressure at home to secure the release in particular of Griner, arrested in Russia on drug charges, but equally cannot be seen to be giving ground to Moscow.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last Wednesday the US had made a “substantial” offer to Russia weeks ago, and on Friday he held a phone call with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
The Russian foreign minister “strongly advised a return to professional dialogue in the context of ‘quiet diplomacy’ without any dubious media leaks,” the ministry in Moscow said in a statement afterward.
A person familiar with the matter said Blinken called Lavrov because Moscow had not accepted or even responded to the written proposal so far.
Griner’s case has attracted substantial publicity in the US, and if Biden can’t arrange a deal for her release, polls indicate he risks adding to Democrats’ troubles in the November midterm elections.
Moscow hopes to extract a better deal from the US that involves at least one other Russian person, according to the people familiar with the discussions.
Russia would agree to a one-for-one swap involving Griner and Bout or a two-for-two exchange, a person close to the Kremlin and a Russian official said. A two-for-one deal isn’t acceptable, they said. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova declined to comment.
A person familiar with the matter said the focus in the US was on getting a formal and detailed response to the offer already on the table, and less so about whether a 2-for-2 swap might be acceptable to the Biden administration.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
A Russian official via a backchannel sought the inclusion in any deal of Vadim Krasikov, a former official with links to the domestic spy agency who was convicted of murder in 2021 in Germany, people familiar with the conversations said.
Krasikov is imprisoned in Germany, meaning authorities in Berlin would need to agree to release him for a US-Russia swap deal. The informal raising of Krasikov by Moscow could therefore be a stalling tactic.
“Holding two wrongfully detained Americans hostage for the release of a Russian assassin in a third country’s custody is not a serious counteroffer,” Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement.
“It is a bad faith attempt to avoid the deal on the table that Russia should take.”
Wolfgang Buechner, a deputy German government spokesman, declined to comment Monday when asked at a regular news conference about potentially including Krasikov in any deal.
“If I understand things correctly, this whole issue is in any case off the table so there’s no need to speculate” whether such a deal is possible, he said.
Another potential name in the mix for Russia could be Vladislav Klyushin, a Kremlin insider extradited from Switzerland to the US in December on insider-trading charges, several people aware of the discussions in Moscow said.
Griner, 31, a two-time Olympic Gold medalist, has galvanized support for her release from a Russian prison.
She has played for a Russian team during the WNBA off-season, and was was arrested in February after Russian customs officials said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner pleaded guilty to smuggling charges last month, saying the infraction was unintentional.
Still, it would be awkward for Biden to pursue a one-for-one swap for her, considering Whelan has been imprisoned far longer and his family has also agitated for his release. Whelan is accused of espionage.
An arms dealer dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” Bout is serving a 25-year sentence he received in 2012 for plotting to sell weapons to a Colombian paramilitary group that’s designated a terrorist organization. Moscow has long demanded his release. Bout pleaded not guilty.
Ivan Melnikov, a Russian prisoners’ rights campaigner, said the US risked complicating Griner’s release by publicizing its offer.
“The Russian side was promptly ready to go for a one-on-one exchange scheme — Brittney Griner for Viktor Bout,” Melnikov said in a letter to Blinken that he submitted via the White House website on Friday.
“But you announced an unequal two-on-one exchange, which, in my opinion, could clearly delay negotiations, or nullify all those huge efforts of prisoners’ relatives in both countries, lawyers and human rights defenders.”
The Biden administration has declined to comment on whether it would agree to release Bout as part of a swap for Griner and Whelan. The US previously had spurned swaps including Bout, saying his crimes were too extensive, making an exchange unequal.
Still, Klyushin may be far more valuable to both the Biden administration and to the Kremlin. One of his alleged co-conspirators, who remains at large, was previously charged by the US in connection with Russia’s scheme to interfere in the 2016 US election.
Russian intelligence has concluded that Klyushin has access to documents related to the hacking of Democratic Party networks during the campaign, according to people in Moscow close to the Kremlin and government security services.
The documents, the people said, establish that hacking was led by a team in Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency that US cybersecurity companies have dubbed “Fancy Bear,” or APT28.
This isn’t the first episode where Klyushin’s name has come up. Russia a year ago turned down a proposed prisoner swap involving Whelan and another imprisoned former US Marine, Trevor Reed, after Switzerland declined to hand Klyushin back to Russia, according to people with knowledge of the matter who spoke at the time.
In April, despite a rupture in ties with Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, US and Russian authorities exchanged Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko in a carefully-orchestrated swap at a Turkish airfield. The Russian pilot was sentenced in 2011 to 20 years for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the US.
Brittney Griner’s Russian Trial Moves Toward Conclusion As Prisoner Exchange Talk Heats Up
The WNBA player will return to court on Thursday, awaiting a sentence that could play a significant factor in negotiations between the U.S. and Russia over her release.
Women’s basketball star Brittney Griner’s trial on drug charges moved toward its conclusion outside Moscow Tuesday, her long-term fate increasingly tied to campaigns on behalf of several other prisoners.
The court heard testimony from a prosecution expert witness, who had conducted an examination of the substance contained in the vape cartridges that were confiscated from Ms. Griner when she arrived in Russia in mid-February. The prosecution has said the cartridges contained a total of 0.702 grams of hashish oil.
Ms. Griner’s next hearing is scheduled for Thursday, in which both sides are expected to make closing arguments and Ms. Griner will deliver final testimony in her own defense, said Alexander Boykov, one of her lawyers, from the Moscow Legal Center.
Russia’s state news agency, TASS, reported that the prosecutor was expected to ask for a sentence for Ms. Griner on Thursday.
“On August 4, the trial of the Griner case is to be completed,” TASS cited the court as saying. “After that, on that day,” the parties are expected to debate the case, it said.
Ms. Griner’s sentence will likely be a significant factor as both sides seek to balance the human equation that is a prisoner exchange.
She is making a bid for leniency, pleading guilty to possessing drugs and bringing them into Russia but saying she packed them by mistake and never intended to break the law of a country where she has enjoyed living, paying taxes, and contributing to Russian basketball for years. Her charges carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
On Tuesday, Mr. Boykov challenged the qualifications of the expert witness in court, saying afterwards that he believed the expert had erred in testing methodology, and could not accurately decide the quantity of the substance seized.
Maria Blagovolina, partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm and another of Ms. Griner’s lawyers, said the court would “analyze everything that has been said, the evidence that we have presented [and] accordingly, the court will already decide how much it will rely on the examination. This is all at the discretion of the court.”
Ms. Griner’s lawyers wouldn’t comment on the issues of a possible prisoner swap, directing reporters to Russia’s foreign ministry.
The U.S. is pressing a “substantial proposal” to Russia in order to secure the freedom of Ms. Griner and another American, former Marine Paul Whelan, who was convicted of espionage charges in 2020 and is serving a 16-year sentence.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the unusual step of pushing the proposal in a press conference last week; he reiterated it during a call on Friday to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The U.S. has officially declined to specify the offer. But people familiar with the matter say the offer is to exchange the pair for the release of a Russian arms dealer held in the United States, Viktor Bout, who has five years remaining on a sentence he received in 2012.
Russian officials have repeatedly said they cannot discuss a trade until Ms. Griner’s trial is complete, saying that their legal system is independent of any political negotiations.
On Tuesday, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov also told reporters that the Kremlin did not want to negotiate in public. “This megaphone diplomacy, a public exchange of positions will not lead to a result,” he said.
The fates of Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan and Viktor Bout are interlinked because of campaigns waged for each of them.
There also remains the possibility that they could yet hinge on other figures, such as an American teacher named Marc Fogel sentenced in June to 14 years for bringing in marijuana to treat a documented medical condition.
Senior administration officials of the U.S. government have said they continue to examine his case; his family has recently begun speaking publicly on his behalf
A U.S. official said that Russia deflected the Biden administration’s initial offer to trade Mr. Bout for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, demanding that the trade also include Vadim Krasikov, a Russian serving a murder sentence in Germany for the killing of a Chechen militant in Berlin.
That request was first reported by CNN on Friday, prompting another unusually specific response from White House officials.
White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told a press briefing on Monday that Washington had received what she characterized as a “bad-faith” response to the proposal it had made.
“We want to have a good-faith conversation on that,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said. “We want to make sure that we get this done as soon as possible. What we have heard … is in bad faith. There was a counteroffer that was made… we don’t see it as a serious counteroffer.”
Ms. Griner’s supporters have put significant pressure on the administration to bring a high-profile figure home quickly, with professional athletes providing many of the loudest voices. The U.S. moved unusually quickly in declaring her to be “wrongfully detained,” a designation that effectively commits the U.S. to securing her release, without elaborating on the reason behind the conclusion.
Mr. Whelan’s family has pressed just as hard to ensure he is not overlooked, three months after the U.S. brought home another former Marine, Trevor Reed, in a swap for the Russian Konstantin Yaroshenko. He has denied being a spy, and the U.S. has also deemed him to be wrongfully detained.
Mr. Bout’s elevation and the emerging debate over the merits of his release are the culmination of a campaign waged quietly over months and years by figures including his American lawyer.
“Viktor Bout has been in jail for almost 15 years. As he is viewed in Russia, he is the longest-held Russian hostage in the U.S. prison system,” said the lawyer, Steve Zissou. “I believe the time has come for him to go home to his wife and daughter.”
There is no shortage of critics, a group that includes former President Donald Trump, who complained on talk radio over the weekend that Mr. Bout was too dangerous to be released. The Justice Department also has a reflexive objection to all prisoner exchanges, an argument that the White House has set aside in this case.
Brittney Griner Sentenced To Nine Years In Prison For Bringing Drugs Into Russia
The U.S. is already pressing for the women’s basketball star’s release through a prisoner exchange, but Russia has said it would only negotiate in earnest after the conclusion of her trial.
U.S. women’s basketball star Brittney Griner on Thursday was convicted of bringing marijuana with criminal intent into Russia in mid-February and sentenced to nine years in prison, an outcome that is expected to clear the way for negotiations over her release between two countries with frosty relations.
Ms. Griner’s sentence was close to the maximum 10-year penalty for the charges of drug possession and smuggling that she faced, and was announced by Judge Anna Sotnikova in a courtroom outside Moscow, after Russian prosecutors had sought 9½ years. The sentence also includes a fine of 1 million rubles
Ms. Griner will immediately be transferred to a penal colony, the judge said, with the 5½ months she has spent in detention ahead of her trial included in her term.
However, the two-time Olympian, who was the No. 1 overall draft pick when she entered American women’s professional basketball for the Phoenix Mercury in 2013, is not certain to serve out the decade there.
The U.S. has moved with unusual swiftness in declaring her to be wrongfully detained in Russia, and in another extraordinary move, openly pressed Russia to accept what it has characterized as a “substantial proposal” for her release and that of another American also deemed wrongfully detained in Russia, former Marine Paul Whelan, who was given a 16-year sentence for espionage in 2020.
People familiar with the matter say the proposal is to exchange the pair for the release of a Russian arms dealer held in the United States, Viktor Bout, who has five years remaining on a sentence he received in 2012.
On Thursday American officials quickly condemned the sentence, and pledged to continue their efforts to bring back Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared Ms. Griner “a political pawn”, saying: “This step puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns.”
U.S. President Biden, in a statement, also said the sentence was proof that her legal case had been influenced by other considerations.
“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,” he said.
Later Thursday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “I’m not able to share more publicly at this time, but we are willing to take every step necessary to bring home our people, as we demonstrated with Trevor Reed” a former Marine who had been detained in Russia since 2019 before being released in April as part of a prisoner swap.
Ms. Griner’s Russian defense team had asked for the court to impose a minimal sentence, and characterized the verdict as “unreasonable,” also noting that defendants typically receive a more lenient sentence for crimes like the one for which Ms. Griner was convicted.
They added that they would file an appeal within the 10-day deadline, and didn’t rule out asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to pardon Ms. Griner, they said.
The Kremlin didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Ms. Griner’s sentence or a possible prisoner exchange.
Russian officials have long indicated that they would not engage in public negotiations, and have criticized Washington for what presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov described as “megaphone diplomacy,” particularly ahead of the conclusion of Ms. Griner’s trial.
Behind the scenes, though, they had signaled that a two-for-one deal appeared insufficient, even before Ms. Griner’s stiff sentence.
A U.S. official said that Russia deflected the Biden administration’s initial offer to trade Mr. Bout for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, demanding that the trade also include Vadim Krasikov, a Russian serving a murder sentence in Germany for the killing of a Chechen militant in Berlin.
Berlin officials said they had been informed by the U.S. government of a conversation last week between Mr. Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Experts from the German Justice and Foreign ministries advised against any exchange involving a convicted murderer on legal grounds, according to one Berlin official.
Earlier Thursday, Ms. Griner had made an emotional plea for leniency.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” Ms. Griner said. “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling it, that it doesn’t end my life here.”
Ms. Griner pleaded guilty last month to bringing marijuana into Russia but said she packed them by mistake and never intended to violate Russian law. She presented an Arizona doctor’s prescription to use marijuana to treat pain.
She also offered character testimony from the captain and general manager of her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg where like many American players, she has played for years during the WNBA offseason.
Like the State Department, Ms. Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, described her client as a “political pawn” in a statement.
“Bringing Brittney and Paul home is the sole objective, and as such, we should use all available tools. We must remain focused and unified. This is a time for compassion and a shared understanding that getting a deal done to bring Americans home will be hard, but it is urgent and it is the right thing to do.”
Russian prosecutors had said that vape cartridges containing a total of 0.702 grams of hashish oil were confiscated from Ms. Griner’s luggage when she arrived in Russia—one week before the invasion of Ukraine.
‘Free BG’: Brittney Griner’s Plight Spurs Outcry Across Sports, Politics
Sports stars and politicians are decrying basketball star Brittney Griner’s nine-year drug sentence by a Russian court.
The Phoenix Mercury player has been detained in Russia since mid-February, when authorities said they found cartridges containing hashish oil in her bag.
She was convicted of drug possession and smuggling, and sentenced to nine years in prison on Thursday. The verdict comes after the US offered to swap imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan.
US President Joe Biden called the ruling “unacceptable,” as did Representative Cori Bush, a Democrat representing parts of St. Louis, Missouri.
The immediate release of Brittney Griner must remain a top priority. Her detainment and wrongful sentencing is unacceptable and must not be tolerated.
Free Brittney Griner. https://t.co/I3nZheNvD8
— Congresswoman Cori Bush (@RepCori) August 4, 2022
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, joined Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland blasted Russia for holding her.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called verdict “unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected” in a joint statement.
“Brittney Griner remains wrongly detained. The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”
Others who reacted to the news included the WNBA Players Association, which released a thread praising Griner as both a person and athlete. “Given her record of service on and off the court, BG without question deserves compassion and mercy,” the union said. “She deserves to come home.”
Brittney Griner is a beautiful individual, inside and out. She lives a life in service to others.
— WNBPA (@TheWNBPA) August 4, 2022
Fellow WNBA players also spoke out about the sentencing.
Arike Ogunbowale, a guard with the Dallas Wings, had previously reflected on playing overseas in Russia, which many WNBA players do to supplement their salaries.
“Can’t just play with people’s lives like that,” Ogunbowale tweeted on Thursday. “Sickening.”
In a Twitter thread, Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas said the star “is being used as a political pawn.” She urged Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to bring both Griner and Whelan back to the US.
“This is a time for compassion and a shared understanding that getting a deal done to bring Americans home will be hard, but it is urgent and it is the right thing to do,” Colas said.
Actor Mia Farrow and Bravo producer Andy Cohen also asserted their support of Griner, as did singer Justin Bieber, who reposted an ESPN Instagram post to his Stories. CNN host Cari Champion called the sentence “expected by still HORRIFYING.”
ESPN host Mina Kimes pushed back against some people who said the sentence was warranted.
“This is awful, as are many of the replies… People’s brains so poisoned by the politicization of this story that they’ve lost sight of the fact that this is a human being whose future is in peril,” said Kimes. “Heartbreaking all around.”
Russia Is Open To Talks On Brittney Griner Prisoner Swap, Kremlin Official Says
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says, ‘We are ready to discuss this topic’.
A senior Kremlin official said Moscow was ready to discuss a prisoner swap with Washington that people familiar with the matter say could see U.S. women’s basketball star Brittney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan traded for a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the U.S.
The comments from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a news conference in Cambodia, came a day after a Russian court sentenced Ms. Griner to nine years in prison following her guilty plea and conviction on charges she brought a marijuana product into the country. The U.S. maintains Ms. Griner has been wrongfully detained.
“We are ready to discuss this topic, but within the framework of a channel that was agreed upon by Presidents Putin and Biden,” Mr. Lavrov said Friday in Phnom Penh, on the sidelines of a regional forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Mr. Lavrov didn’t give any more details of the framework. Mr. Biden had raised the issue of Americans imprisoned in Russia with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a high-profile summit in Geneva last year.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was also in Phnom Penh for the Asean forum, acknowledged Mr. Lavrov’s remark and reiterated the U.S.’s “significant concern” about the Russian government’s legal system and its use of “individuals as political pawns.”
“We put forward, as you know, a substantial proposal that Russia should engage with us on,” Mr. Blinken told reporters. “And what Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning and said publicly is that they are prepared to engage through channels we’ve established to do just that, and we’ll be pursuing.”
President Biden, when asked Friday about the administration’s efforts to bring Ms. Griner home, said: “I’m hopeful. We are working hard.”
Ms. Griner’s sentence was close to the maximum 10-year penalty for the charges of drug possession and smuggling that she faced. The sentence also includes a fine of 1 million rubles, about $16,300.
She will be transferred to a penal colony, the judge said Thursday, with the 5½ months she spent in detention before her trial included in her term.
Russian prosecutors said Ms. Griner, a Phoenix Mercury star who for years has played with UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason, had vape cartridges containing a total of 0.702 grams of hashish oil in her luggage when she arrived in Russia in February—one week before the invasion of Ukraine.
Ms. Griner admitted to carrying the drugs but said she packed them by mistake and never intended to violate Russian law. She presented an Arizona doctor’s prescription to use marijuana to treat pain.
Ms. Griner’s lawyer, Alexander Boykov, said Friday it would take up to three months for an appeal to be filed and considered.
“We don’t agree with such a harsh sentence,” Mr. Boykov said Friday in comments carried by Russian state news agency TASS. “In normal judicial practice this is five to six years, and a third to half of cases are suspended sentences.”
While Mr. Boykov acknowledged there was little chance of an appeal being granted, he said it was worth trying.
Washington has pressed Moscow to accept what it characterized as a “substantial proposal” for Ms. Griner’s release and that of Mr. Whelan, who was handed a 16-year sentence for espionage in 2020 and whom the U.S. also considers wrongfully detained.
People familiar with the matter say the proposal would free the pair in exchange for the release of a Russian arms dealer held in the U.S., Viktor Bout, who has five years remaining on a sentence he received in 2012.
Russia has also demanded the trade include Vadim Krasikov, a Russian serving a murder sentence in Germany for the killing of a Chechen militant in Berlin, a U.S. official said.
Russia Confirms Prisoner Exchange Talks With US Following Brittney Griner Sentencing
Griner was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison.
For the first time since WNBA star Brittney Griner was arrested on drug charges in February, Russia has confirmed that prisoner swap negotiations with the United States are taking place.
On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev confirmed that negotiations between the two countries were underway.
“Instructions were given to authorized structures to carry out negotiations,” Nechayev said. “They are being conducted by competent authorities,” The Washington Post reported, citing Russian state media.
Griner was sentenced last week to nine years in a Russian prison after being convicted of drug possession and drug smuggling.
Griner admitted to bringing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil into Russia but contended she made an “an honest mistake” when doing so.
At the end of July, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the Biden administration had made a “substantial proposal” to Russia in order to facilitate the return of Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release,” Blinken said of the two Americans, according to Axios.
Following Griner’s sentencing, President Biden called the verdict “unacceptable” and reiterated that Griner was wrongfully detained.
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” Biden said in a statement.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”