A Russian court found WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty of drug smuggling charges Thursday and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony.
Griner’s legal team said that they will appeal the decision, as “the court ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea.” They have 10 days to do so, with a hearing in Moscow regional court expected next week.
While Griner’s legal team is exploring all possibilities, Just Women’s Sports has laid out what the conviction means for the Phoenix Mercury center.
Griner has been detained since Feb. 17, when she arrested by the Russian Federal Customs Service in a Moscow-area airport after they found cannabis oil in her luggage. As of Thursday, Griner has been detained for 168 days.
In May, the U.S. government classified Griner as “wrongfully detained” by the Russian government. The classification enabled the U.S. government to begin negotiations to bring her home.
The change also gave the green light to athletes and others to begin speaking out on Griner’s behalf. The previous strategy had been to attract minimal attention to prevent Russia from treating her as a political pawn.
In June, the U.S. government offered Russia a prisoner swap. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken confirmed the offer in July. While he did not confirm details of the deal, CNN reported that the U.S. had offered up arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, who is also classified as wrongfully detained.
With 99 percent of Russian court cases resulting in a conviction, Griner pled guilty as a strategy to expedite her trial, which could have taken months.
The trial began on July 1, with experts saying that her best bet was to plead guilty and hope for a lesser sentence. Griner pleaded guilty on July 7 and has called the possession of the vape cartridges an “honest mistake.”
“That’s why I pled guilty to my charges. I understand everything that’s being said against me, the charges that are against me, and that is why I pled guilty,” Griner said at the end of the trial. “But I had no intent to break any Russian laws.”
In addition, before any swap could take place, the Russian government likely would have required an admission of guilt from Griner.
“Griner’s strategy throughout the trial was to treat it as a legitimate proceeding, knowing a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion and that any deal to send her home would require an admission of guilt,” ESPN reported.
The trial was considered by legal experts to be a “show trial,” with the guilty verdict the expected outcome. The endgame for Russia appears to be a prisoner exchange with the United States.
“The whole point of a state like Russia arresting an American is not because it’s a legitimate criminal proceeding, but because they intend to use them as a hostage,” said Dr. Dani Gilbert, a hostage taking and recovery expert. “At some point between the moment of the arrest as the process unfolds until that person is released, they transition from regular prisoner to bargaining chip.”
She added that Griner is “safely in that territory of bargaining chip.”
While the United States has proposed a swap, Russian officials have maintained that under Russian law the country would not consider any offer until Griner was tried and sentenced. They also have cautioned the U.S. to stick to “quiet diplomacy.”
“Attempts by the American side to make noise in public…don’t help the practical settlement of issues,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov in July. He added that until the trial was over, “there are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps.”
According to Griner’s legal team, it is now “legally possible” for a swap to be negotiated since the court has rendered a verdict.
While the U.S. remains committed to negotiating a swap, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Russia had made a “bad faith” response to the offer that American officials don’t consider to be serious. The U.S. government will continue to work for her release, and Blinken said in a statement Thursday that he is “committed” to ensuring the release of Griner and Whelan.
“The Russian court’s conviction and sentencing of U.S. citizen Brittney Griner spotlights our concerns with the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions,” he said.
Additionally, President Joe Biden reiterated that Russia is “wrongfully detaining” Griner.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” he said. “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”