“I’m pretty confident that the process is already rigged,” said Daniel Fried, an expert on Russia who has served as ambassador and a senior State Department official under three US presidents and is now a member of the Atlantic Council. Given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s track record, Fried said, “Respect for the rule of law is something the Kremlin doesn’t take seriously.”
Griner, 31, was arrested at an airport outside Moscow on February 17 when Russian customs officials allegedly discovered e-cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage. If convicted, she faces up to ten years in prison. A two-time Olympic gold medalist and eight-time All-Star for the Phoenix Mercury, Griner traveled to UMMC Ekaterinburg, the Russian team she plays for in the WNBA off-season.
After several extensions of Griner’s sentence, the court announced this week that her trial would begin on Friday. Her lawyer, Alexander Boikov, told Russian media he expected the case to last two months.
As Griner’s family and supporters mount increasing calls for her release, there is little evidence that her path to freedom will pass through the Russian justice system, where an estimated 99 percent of criminal cases end in convictions.
“It’s usually not about what the verdict is going to be,” said Thomas Firestone, a former legal adviser at the US embassy in Moscow. “It depends more on what the punishment will be.”
Firestone, a partner at law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, said a case like Griner’s would normally be tried by a single judge rather than a jury and would be open to the public, albeit with few seats available. Griner herself is expected to be present while seated in a secured glass case.
With US-Russia relations at their most tense since the Cold War, largely as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, US officials and pundits have viewed developments in the Griner case as a series of political rather than legal maneuvers. The US State Department in May declared Griner’s case a “wrongful detention,” an official classification that shifted oversight of her case to the Office of the US President’s Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
“Brittney is a political prisoner in every sense [whose detainment was] a deeply cynical geopolitical power play involving a prominent American,” Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.) said this week. “Americans and Brittney’s fans should be prepared for this sham trial and the sham trial that will result in the Russians finding her guilty and even convicting her.”
The US government “has determined that Brittney Griner is being unfairly imprisoned and being used as a political pawn,” her agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas said in a statement. “Negotiations for her immediate release should be a top priority regardless of the trial, and we expect that [President Biden and administration officials] to do everything in their power to strike a deal to bring them home.”
Candace Buckner: Brittney Griner is still locked up and her tweets and t-shirts can’t free her
On Tuesday, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters the administration is “actively committed” to solving the case and securing Griner’s release.
Russia experts have long viewed Griner’s imprisonment and passage through the courts as a ploy to gain leverage for an eventual prisoner swap, and it is widely believed that Russia’s target in exchange for Griner is arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is a 25-year-old Served for conspiracy to murder US citizens and provide aid to a terrorist organization. In April, despite strained relations, the United States and Russia agreed on a prisoner swap that freed former US Marine Trevor Reed after nearly three years in Russian custody.
“They are looking for leverage,” Fried said of Russia’s handling of Griner. “In any case, in which it is official [Russian] interest, the system tends to turn to that official interest. Their fate will be decided politically.”
Little is publicly known about Griner’s condition or his treatment by the 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 haven’t spoken to each other since the Feb. 17 arrest, but she has received letters from Griner.
“She tells me she’s fine,” Cherelle Griner said. “She says, ‘I’m fine, baby. I am hardened. I’m just not me. When I get home, it takes me a minute to get myself back together. But I’m holding on. I won’t break until I get home. I won’t let them break me.’”