Brittney Griner will go on trial starting Friday in Russia, where she has been detained for more than four months on a drug charge.
Video from an NPR reporter showed the two-time Olympic gold medal winner entering and leaving court, apparently without commenting, in the custody of officials. She previously had been ordered to remain in pretrial detention until this coming Saturday.
Brian Whitmore, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and an assistant professor at the University of Texas Arlington, characterized Griner’s detainment as “a hostage situation” and her trial as an exercise in “political theater” designed to pressure the U.S. government into a prisoner swap.
“They want to trade her,” Whitmore said, “and they’re going to drag this out until they get something they want.”
Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.) said Griner is “for intents and purposes a political prisoner” and her fans should be prepared for a “sham” trial resulting in a guilty verdict and a prison sentence.
“This will all mean nothing, and I will keep working closely with the Biden Administration to bring her, and all Americans detained abroad, home safely,” Allred said in a statement to The Washington Post.
Griner’s court appearance Monday and the upcoming trial, Allred added, “are all theater to give Russia some appearance of having a fair legal system and for her detention to be anything other than a deeply cynical, geo-political power play with a prominent American and to put more pressure on the negotiations for her release.”
The 31-year-old Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, was stopped Feb. 17, shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at Sheremetyevo International Airport and accused of carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is illegal in Russia. Like many WNBA players who head overseas during the offseason, Griner plays in Russia to supplement her income.
The State Department has categorized Griner as “wrongfully detained,” a strategy shift that indicated it would no longer wait for the case to proceed through the Russian legal system and would take more aggressive steps to negotiate her release. If convicted on charges of large-scale transportation of drugs, she could face 10 years in prison. According to the Associated Press, fewer than 1 percent of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and acquittals can be overturned.
After Monday’s hearing, a State Department spokesperson said: “We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas. The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner. The U.S. government will continue to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner and her family. We will continue to press for her release.”
Lindsay Kagawa Colas, Griner’s agent, tweeted Monday that the hearing “was administrative in nature and not on the merits. That said, the fact remains that the U.S. Government has determined that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained and being used as a political pawn. The negotiation for her immediate release regardless of the legal proceedings should remain a top priority and we expect [President Biden and Vice President Harris] to do everything in their power, right now, to get a deal done to bring her home.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, told the AP last week that she has “zero trust” in the U.S. government’s handling of the situation after a planned phone call between the two did not occur because of what the State Department said was a “logistical error” involving the U.S. Embassy in Russia.
“I find it unacceptable, and I have zero trust in our government right now,” Cherelle Griner said. “If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home? Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call.”
As Griner’s case has drawn increased attention, supporters have called for a prisoner swap, similar to the one in April in which Marine veteran Trevor Reed, who had been detained since 2019, was exchanged for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.
Russian news media has speculated that she could be exchanged for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence on conviction of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization. However, the disparity in their crimes makes that unlikely to be acceptable to the U.S. government.
And 40 min later the preliminary hearing is over. No comment from Griner. Her Russian lawyer says the judge extended her detention for the length of her trial. No date set. Curiously, no US embassy officials present for the hearing. #BrittneyGriner pic.twitter.com/FSYprXjSgs— Charles Maynes (@cwmiii3) June 27, 2022
“They want Viktor Bout back. He’s connected to the highest levels of Russian government. This is an attempt to get him back,” Whitmore said. “It’s clear the [Biden] administration is under increasing pressure from society, from Griner’s friends and family. It’s not an enviable position here, because it’s clear what the Russian government wants. This is akin to negotiating with a terrorist.”