More than four months after her initial incarceration, WNBA star Brittney Griner is expected to appear in a Russian courtroom on Friday to begin a trial on drug charges that legal experts said will almost certainly end in a conviction despite the noise would be in the United States for her release.
“There’s a bias, mainly because the Russian justice system says they really shouldn’t go to court unless the accused is convicted,” said William Pomeranz, acting director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on Russian law. “There is no real notion or expectation that the accused could be innocent. There is no presumption of innocence, really.”
Russian customs officials said they found vape cartridges with traces of hash oil in Griner’s luggage as she passed through a security checkpoint at an airport near Moscow on February 17. The drug charges that Griner faces face a sentence of up to 10 years in front of the colony.
Aleksandr Boikov, Griner’s lawyer, said Monday he expects the trial to start on Friday and last up to two months.
“We don’t know what evidence they have at this point,” Pomeranz said. “We don’t know how many volumes of evidence they want to put in the file, but it’s usually impressive and meaningful in this type of case.”
Griner’s arrest comes at a sensitive geopolitical juncture during Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and amid Russia’s strained diplomatic relations with the United States and some European countries. From the start of Griner’s imprisonment, her supporters feared that she could be used by Russia during the global conflict.
In May, the US State Department reinforced those concerns by declaring that Griner was “wrongly detained.” This shifted responsibility for the case to the Office of the Administration, which directs and coordinates United States diplomatic and strategic efforts regarding hostage cases abroad.
“Brittney has been determined to have been wrongly imprisoned since April 29, meaning that the U.S. government has determined that she is being used as a political pawn and is therefore negotiating her release regardless of the trial,” Griner’s agent said Lindsay Kagawa Colas in an email on Wednesday. “As such, our expectation – including Brittney’s family – remains for President Biden to strike a deal to bring her home.”
Griner’s family and supporters are increasingly pleading with President Biden and the US government to secure Griner’s release.
Kagawa Colas recently coordinated a letter to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris signed by groups including the National Organization for Women, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Urban League and the National Action Network. The letter urged the government to reach an agreement on Griner’s release.
In April, after Russia agreed to a prisoner swap, it freed Trevor Reed, a former US Marine who was sentenced to nine years in prison after he was accused of endangering Russian police officers during an altercation.
Reed’s deteriorating health in Russia most likely played a role in Moscow’s willingness to release him, said Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a Ph.D. Student in the history department at the University of Pennsylvania specializing in African American experiences in the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Russia.
“The problem is that Brittney is so much more politically valuable than Trevor Reed because of her profile in relation to the prisoner trade. So the question is going to be a lot bigger, and I think the question that they telegraphed on the Russian news is for Viktor Bout,” said St. Julian-Varnon, who consulted with the WNBA players’ union about Griner’s incarceration.
Bout, an international arms dealer, has been sentenced to 25 years in prison by a US court. Russia is also interested in the release of Roman Seleznev, a hacker convicted in the United States of massive credit card and identity theft and sentenced to 27 years in prison. In addition to Griner, Russia has also arrested Paul Whelan, a former US Marine who was sentenced to 16 years in prison on espionage charges.
“It’s the classic hostage dilemma,” said Thomas Firestone, a former Justice Department official who practiced law in Moscow. “If you are negotiating release, you may be encouraging future kidnappings. If you don’t, the person may never be released.”
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters Tuesday that he and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had been speaking with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, for the past few days.
“The United States government is actively trying to solve this case and bring Brittney home,” Sullivan said. He added: “It has the full attention of the President and every senior member of his national security and diplomatic teams. And we are actively working to find a resolution to this case and will do so without pause until we get Brittney home safely.”
On Tuesday, Russia announced it had banned Biden, the first lady, Jill Biden and others from entering the country in response to sweeping sanctions. The list included four senators: Republicans Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Susan Collins of Maine and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
“Free Brittney Griner,” Sasse said in a statement. “It’s no big deal if Putin throws a tantrum and bans Americans from Russia – but we have a problem if he takes an American prisoner.”
What you should know about Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia
Griner is one of the most decorated basketball players in the world – a seven-time WNBA All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first openly gay athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Nike. After a two-week hiatus, she traveled to Russia to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a strong professional women’s basketball team.
Updates on Griner have been infrequent since then and mostly issued by Russian state media. According to The Associated Press, Griner has communicated with WNBA colleagues through letters and emails. But Cherelle Griner told The AP that a recent long-planned phone call between the two never materialized because of a logistical error at the US Embassy in Moscow.
“I find it unacceptable and I have no faith in our government right now,” Cherelle Griner told The AP in late June. “If I can’t trust you to take an after-hours Saturday call, how can I trust you to actually negotiate on my wife’s behalf to get home?”
In a radio interview Wednesday with Rev. Al Sharpton, who is also the founder of the National Action Network, Cherelle Griner said she had not spoken to her wife since February but had received letters.
“She tells me she’s fine,” Cherelle Griner said of her wife’s letters. “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 persevere. I won’t break until I get home. I won’t let them break me I know they’re trying, but I’ll do my best to just hold on until I get home.'”
Paris Hatcher was even more dismayed when she learned of the extension of Brittney Griner’s detention on Monday and shared a picture of Griner with Russian state media.
“She looks scared,” said Hatcher, whose organization Black Feminist Future has launched an online campaign #BringBrittneyHome. “The most important thing is that someone has been arrested. This is about dignity. This is about humanity. She deserves to be connected to her family.”
The rights of defendants in Russia contrast sharply with those charged with a crime in the United States, St. Julian-Varnon said.
“You have no right to a jury trial,” St. Julian-Varnon said. “You don’t have the right to have your attorney call any witnesses he wants. The entire case against you and the case supporting you is based on evidence collected by the state.”
Still, St. Julian-Varnon said she remains cautiously optimistic that Griner could eventually be released either through a prisoner exchange or a conviction on a lesser charge and agreement to pay a sizable fine.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” St. Julian-Varnon said. “I want to stay optimistic because it’s still her life. It’s Brittney’s life. It’s Cherelle’s life.”