Nothing about Thursday’s proceedings in a Russian courthouse, where the W.N.B.A. star Brittney Griner was being tried on drug smuggling charges, surprised experts conversant in Russia’s legal process. Griner was convicted and sentenced to a penal colony for nine years — only one yr shy of the utmost sentence.
Her conviction was regarded as a formality and a prerequisite for a prisoner swap that may lead to her return to the US.
“I believe the negotiations will speed up now that there’s finality to the alleged court process,” said Jonathan Franks, who has worked with the family of Trevor R. Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was returned to the US in a prisoner swap with Russia in April. Reed was also sentenced to nine years of imprisonment after he was convicted of assault, a charge his family considered to be spurious and politically motivated.
“One thing Americans need to comprehend is, we’re coping with thugs,” Franks said. “The individuals who take our folks hostage or wrongfully detain them, it’s just state-sponsored kidnapping. They’re thugs. Sometimes, as a way to get thugs’ attention, they only understand strength.”
Last week, the U.S. State Department said it had made a “substantial” offer to the Russian government for Griner and Paul N. Whelan, an American who has been 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 much more patience could be required from those that support her. After U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken publicly said that the US had offered Russia a deal, Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, told reporters that prisoner swaps were negotiated quietly.
William Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute and an authority on Russian law, said: “There’s no incentive for Russia to do any favors for the US.”
“I’m not optimistic that the diplomatic deal will happen any time soon,” he said, pointing to Peskov’s statement and the poor relations between the 2 countries due to war in Ukraine.
Griner has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 when Russian customs officials at an airport near Moscow said that they had found hashish oil, a cannabis derivative, in a vape pen in her luggage. The U.S. State Department announced in May that it considered Griner to be “wrongfully detained,” which meant her case could be handled by the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. The State Department said it might work to secure her release, regardless of how her trial ended.
In each the US and Russia, Griner’s teammates and coaches have offered their support. Members of her Russian team, UMMC Yekaterinburg, testified on Griner’s behalf during her trial.
In the US, several W.N.B.A. players who had also played in Russia coordinated a social media campaign on Wednesday, the day before her trial ended.
Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the W.N.B.A. players’ union, posted a photograph on Instagram of herself playing for her Russian team, Dynamo Kursk.
“Like me, she has great memories from her time playing and returned yr after yr to compete in Russia,” Ogwumike wrote. She added: “I’m asking that in honor of all our great experiences competing in Russia and around the globe, out of affection and humanity, that you simply show her mercy and understanding. Please be kind to Brittney Griner.”
Although the players’ appeals didn’t appear to affect the proceedings, that they had value in showing solidarity with Griner and her UMMC Yekaterinburg teammates who spoke on her behalf, said Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a Russian historian who has consulted with the players’ union during Griner’s detention.
“Brittney’s Russian teammates and her coach, those that testified on her behalf in Russia really put themselves in danger because Russia only in the near past passed much more stringent laws about cooperating with foreigners,” St. Julian-Varnon said. She said the W.N.B.A. players’ public statements were “giving them a nod and saying they appreciated what they did.”
St. Julian-Varnon began advising the union shortly after Griner was detained. She said early on she told the players to expect a protracted process, that they shouldn’t expect Griner to be released before her trial and that even when her sentence were light, that may mean no less than five years.
Now that Griner has been convicted, St. Julian-Varnon remains to be urging caution.
“This doesn’t mean she’s going to be involved in a prisoner swap any time soon,” she said. “Just keep that in mind because this remains to be a process, nevertheless it’s the subsequent step in the method. It could possibly be weeks. It could possibly be months. Numerous it is dependent upon Russia.”
The Plight of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star has endured months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.
Terri Jackson, the manager director of the W.N.B.A. players’ union, said Griner’s conviction wouldn’t change how the players support her. For months, they spoke out publicly and made other demonstrations of support, corresponding to wearing T-shirts with Griner’s initials and jersey number, 42.
“Just really feeling sad and feeling sick for Brittney and hoping that she gets 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 completed and the sentencing happened, I do know she’s got to be in a really emotional state and just want her to know that we’re still continuing to do whatever we are able to to get her home.”
When asked if the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. would change anything about their tactics, Mike Bass, an N.B.A. spokesman, said each leagues would proceed to support the State Department, White House “and other allies in and outdoors government in the trouble to get Brittney home as soon as possible.”
The tense relationship between the US and Russia has not eased within the months since Griner’s detention. She was jailed shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the US has sent military equipment to Ukraine in its fight against Russia. On Monday, the White House said it might send $550 million in additional arms to Ukraine for the war.
St. Julian-Varnon said that might hamper negotiations for Griner’s release, which was not an issue for Russia. “It only hurts the credibility of the Biden administration,” she said. “There’s no impetus for Russia to do anything immediately.”
That stance more than likely won’t sit well with Griner’s supporters. Paris Hatcher is the manager director of Black Feminist Future, a social justice organization that created the #BringBrittneyHome hashtag campaign. She said her initial excitement over a possible prisoner swap for Griner dissipated after Thursday’s verdict.
Hatcher said the organization would consider options to maintain Griner’s case on the forefront of the minds of politicians.
“Will that mean that we’ll be reaching back out to elected officials that we had been in conversation with in regards to the critical nature of this case?” Hatcher said. “Oftentimes, you only don’t have enough information. Now, you’ve gotten the data. Whatever was making you hesitate, it’s been six months.”
Hatcher added: “Whatever swap that should occur, let it occur. Make it occur.”