On the 135th day of Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia on drug charges, the WNBA star’s trial is expected to begin Friday in a courtroom outside of Moscow. However, rather than the promise of a fair trial and a chance at acquittal, U.S. officials and experts on Russia’s legal system expect the proceedings to be a show trial, with a guilty verdict all but certain.
“I’m fairly confident the trial is already rigged,” said Daniel Fried, an expert on Russia who served as an ambassador and top State Department official under three U.S. presidents and is now a fellow at the Atlantic Council. Given the track record of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Fried said, “respect for the rule of law is not something the Kremlin takes seriously.”
Griner, 31, was arrested Feb. 17 at an airport outside of Moscow when Russian customs officials allegedly discovered vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison. A two-time Olympic gold medalist and eight-time all-star for the Phoenix Mercury, Griner was traveling to join UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Russian team for which she plays during the WNBA’s offseason.
Following several extensions of Griner’s detainment, the court this week indicated her trial would start Friday. Her lawyer, Alexander Boikov, told Russian media outlets he expected it to last two months.
While Griner’s family and supporters have rallied with increasing intensity in demanding her release, there is little to indicate her pathway to freedom will come via the Russian judicial system, where an estimated 99 percent of criminal cases end in conviction.
“It’s not usually a question of what the verdict will be,” said Thomas Firestone, a former resident legal adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. “It’s more a question of what the sentence will be.”
Firestone, a partner with the Stroock & Stroock & Lavan law firm, said a case such as Griner’s typically would be heard by a single judge, as opposed to a jury, and would be open to the public, though with few available seats. Griner herself would be expected to attend while seated within a secured, glass case.
With U.S.-Russia relations at their most strained since the Cold War, largely as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, American officials and experts have viewed developments involving Griner’s case as a series of political rather than legal maneuvers. The U.S. State Department in May declared Griner’s case a “wrongful detainment,” an official classification that shifted oversight of her case to the office of the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
“Brittney is for all intents and purposes a political prisoner [whose detainment was] a deeply cynical geopolitical power play with a prominent American,” Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.) said this week. “Americans and Brittney’s fans should be prepared for this sham trial and process to result in the Russians finding her guilty and even sentencing her.”
The U.S. government “has determined that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained and being used as a political pawn,” her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, said in a statement. “The negotiation for her immediate release regardless of the legal proceedings should remain a top priority and we expect [President Biden and administration officials] to do everything in their power, right now, to get a deal done to bring her home.”
On Tuesday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters the administration is “actively engaged” in trying to resolve the case and secure Griner’s release.
Experts on Russia have long viewed Griner’s detainment and slog through the courts as ploys to gain leverage for an eventual prisoner swap, and it is widely believed Russia’s target in return for Griner is arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization. In April, despite the strained relations, the United States and Russia agreed to a prisoner swap that freed former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed after nearly three years in Russian custody.
“They’re looking for leverage,” Fried said of Russia’s handling of Griner. “In any case in which there is official [Russian] interest, the system tends to bend toward that official interest. Her fate will be determined politically.”
Little is known publicly of Griner’s condition or treatment at the hands of Russian authorities. In an interview Wednesday on the SiriusXM Radio show “Keepin’ It Real with Al Sharpton,” Griner’s wife, Cherelle, said the couple still had not spoken since the Feb. 17 arrest but that she had received letters from Griner.
“She’s telling me she’s okay,” Cherelle Griner said. “She’s like: ‘I’m okay, babe. I’m hardened. I’m not me right now. When I come home, it’s going to take me a minute to get back to myself. But I’m holding on. I won’t break until I come home. I won’t let them break me.’”