Monday, October 2, 2023

Brittney Griner situation explained: Russia confirms prisoner swap negotiations with U.S. regarding WNBA star

Brittney Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star and two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, was found guilty on drug charges in Russia and sentenced to nine years in prison on Thursday.

She has been in Russian custody since being detained in February at Sheremetyevo International Airport. The Russian Federal Customs Service found vape cartridges containing the marijuana concentrate hashish oil in Griner’s luggage.  

The Phoenix Mercury, Griner’s WNBA team, and the WNBPA both issued their support in early March, and in June the WNBA named her an honorary All-Star.

For the first time since Griner’s detainment, Russian officials confirmed on Aug. 11 they are undergoing negotiations with the U.S. government regarding a potential prisoner swap that could bring Griner home. Two days later, The Moscow Times reported Russia has confirmed it seeks to make convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout a part of the deal.

Bout, also known as the “Merchant of Death,” was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and then extradited to the United States, where he is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence.

“The discussions on the very sensitive topic of an exchange are proceeding via the channels chosen by our presidents,” said Alexander Datchiev, head of the North America department at the Russian Foreign Ministry, according to the Russian state-owned news agency TASS “Silent diplomacy continues and should bear fruit if Washington, of course, is careful not to fall into propaganda.”

During the hearing on Aug. 2, Griner’s lawyers argued the state-appointed forensic expert who examined the cartridges found in her luggage made some technical and procedural errors. CBS News reported the defense team called another forensic expert, Dmitry Gladyshev, to testify on the stand.

“The examination [of the cartridges] does not comply with the legislation regarding the completeness of the study and does not comply with the norms of the [Russian Criminal] Code,” Gladyshev said.

On July 27, CNN reported the United States had offered to exchange Bout as part of a potential deal with Russia to release Griner and corporate security director Paul Whelan. That same day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said publicly the U.S. government has put a “substantial proposal on the table” but did not confirm the reports regarding Bout. 

According to CNN, the Russian government replied to the U.S.’s initial offer by requesting that convicted murderer Vadim Krasikov also be added to the proposed swap. Russian officials reportedly communicated the request earlier in July, but they did so through an informal backchannel. Due to the form of communication, the U.S. initially questioned the legitimacy of it. Also, the request to include Krasikov in the trade isn’t a simple one: He was convicted of murder in Germany last year and still remains in German custody.

Per CNN, a German government source confirmed that U.S. officials did make quiet inquiries to Germany. However, it seems the U.S. is still not convinced Russia is cooperating. 

“Holding two wrongfully detained Americans hostage for the release of a Russian assassin in a third country’s custody is not a serious counter-offer,” Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told CNN. “It is a bad faith attempt to avoid the deal on the table that Russia should take.”

Also on July 29, Blinken held a press conference and gave an update on his phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Blinken said he urged him to move forward with the proposal the U.S. had already offered them, but no more details were disclosed. 

“I’m not going to characterize his response and I can’t give you an assessment of whether I think things are any more or less likely, but it was important that he heard directly from me on that,” Blinken said.

July 27 marked the first day Griner testified at her trial. She recounted the day of her arrest and said the interpreter did not provide a full translation, explaining she had to use a translation app on her phone to communicate with a customs officer. Griner also said she was also not offered an explanation of her rights or access to lawyers while being instructed to sign documents.

“Nobody explained anything to me,” Griner said, per CBS News. 

A day before Griner testified, her defense team focused their angle on how cannabis has a medicinal use. However, they still emphasized that Griner had no criminal intent and accidentally put it in her luggage while packing in a rush. That explanation may not have much bearing in Russian court, however, as Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reportedly said the legalization of cannabis in the U.S. has no impact on Russia laws.

Griner had the third day of her trial on July 14, and, although she was expected to testify that day, she didn’t. Instead, Griner had support from two character witnesses. One of them was Maxim Rybakov, director of Griner’s Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, and the other was teammate Evgeniia Beliakova.

“Brittney has always been a very good teammate, so my role here is just to be with her, to support her,” Beliakova told the Associated Press. “We miss her very much, we miss her energy. I was very happy to see her, and I hope this trial will be over soon and with a positive outcome.”

Rybakov told reporters Thursday was the first time he’d seen Griner since February. He said she appeared to look and feel well.

Griner pled guilty to drug charges in Russian court on July 7, more than four months after her detainment. But despite her plea, Griner insists she had “no intent” of breaking the law. 

“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner said in English, which was then translated to Russian for the court proceedings, according to Reuters. “I’d like to give my testimony later. I need time to prepare.”

While Griner could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted, her plea seems to be strategic. According to CBS News, less than 1 percent of defendants are acquitted in Russian criminal cases, and since acquittals can be overturned in the country, the chances of Griner staying out of prison with a not guilty plea were slim. 

“Traditionally, the best defense is to admit your guilt and hope you get a lesser sentence,” William Pomeranz, the acting director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington and an expert on Russian law, told ESPN in June. “There’s not a lot of examples of people raising strong defenses and getting acquitted.”

Griner’s guilty plea could also lead to prisoner exchange between Russia and the United States, according to The New York Times. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but the next development in Griner’s case will likely come on July 14, when she returns to court.

On July 4, Griner sent a letter to the White House appealing for her freedom directly to President Joe Biden. Griner wrote that she missed her wife, family and teammates, adding she spent the Fourth of July holiday thinking about the meaning of freedom.

“It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year,” Griner wrote.

Two days later, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Griner’s wife, Cherelle. In a statement released by the White House, Biden offered his support to the Griner family, adding that his administration will “pursue every avenue” to bring Griner back to the United States.

On July 1, more than 130 days after her detainment, Griner officially began her criminal trial. According to TASS, Griner said in court she understood the charges but declined to immediately comment on them. The prosecution questioned two witnesses on Day 1, an airport customs official and an unidentified witness, with only the former speaking in open court, per the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti. 

The trial will resume July 7, as the absence of two witnesses led to a week-long adjournment, according to RIA-Novosti. After the first day, Alexander Boykov, an attorney for Griner, was hesitant to share much detail regarding his client or her case. 

“I wouldn’t want to talk on the specifics of the case and on the charges and to comment on our position on it because it’s too early for it,” Boykov told reporters outside the court, per ESPN. 

Earlier in the week, Griner’s pretrial detention was reportedly extended six months, her fourth such extension. According to TASS, Griner’s previous pretrial detention ran through July 2. Griner’s detention had already been extended twice at that point. 

A day before the announcement of Griner’s third extension, the Associated Press reported the Mercury met with State Department officials to discuss her potential release. After the meeting, Mercury star Diana Taurasi reiterated their goal of bringing Griner home in a statement. 

“There is a lot involved in getting her back home and safe, they’re working relentlessly,” Taurasi said. “We’re here to do whatever we can to amplify and keep BG at the forefront, which is more important than any basketball game and anything else that’s going on in our lives. We want BG to come home as soon as possible. It’s No. 1 on our list.”

The WNBA has remained supportive of Griner throughout her detainment. According to a June 2 report from the AP, Griner has received hundreds of emails and letters from players around the league. Griner’s email has not been released to the public, but the WNBA Players’ Union has shared it with members through text messages. 

Russian officials examine the emails and letters sent to Griner before she reads them, and Griner has to respond either through writing on paper or dictation. 

“She jokes in her letters. I don’t know how she does it with what she’s going through. She’s an amazing soul,” said Los Angeles Sparks forward Amanda Zahui B., one of many WNBA players who’ve communicated with Griner during her detainment. “She brings light in a situation like this. I don’t think a lot of people could manage to do that.”

The U.S. government has rallied to Griner’s defense, declaring her “wrongfully detained” on May 3 and reportedly enlisting the help of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has several years of experience as an international hostage negotiator. With Griner’s new designation, the U.S. government can immediately work to negotiate her return as opposed to waiting until her trial in Russia concludes. 

“The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” a State Department spokesperson told ESPN. “With this determination, the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.”

According to State Department spokesperson Ned Price, a U.S. consular officer met with Griner on May 19, and the officer reported Griner was “continuing to do as well as could be expected under these exceedingly challenging circumstances.” It was the second visit in a week, and Price wants even more access to Griner.

“Our message is a clear and simple one — we continue to insist that Russia allow consistent and timely consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees,” Price told ABC News. “One-off visits are not sufficient, and we will continue to call on Moscow to uphold its commitments under the Vienna Convention for consistent and timely access, as well.”

Cherelle Griner spoke about the situation in a “Good Morning America” interview on May 25 and said the two haven’t verbally communicated in over 100 days, as her wife’s phone was taken away shortly after she entered police custody. However, they have traded letters “sporadically” in the time since. 

Cherelle Griner also requested to meet with President Joe Biden during the interview. 

“I just keep hearing that, you know, he has the power. She’s a political pawn,” she said. “So if they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it.” 

Griner has more than the U.S. government on her side. In an interview at the NBA Draft Lottery on May 17, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced he and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert are working “side-by-side” in securing Griner’s release. The process has led Silver to communicate with “every level” of government. 

“We’ve been in touch with the White House, the State Department, hostage negotiators, every level of government and also through the private sector as well,” Silver told ESPN. “Our No. 1 priority is her health and safety and making sure that she gets out of Russia.”

Video of Griner attempting to pass through airport screening emerged from Russian customs on March 5, but the service didn’t identify the former Baylor star by name. TASS then confirmed it was Griner, and Russian state TV released an undated photo of her at a police station later that day. The two-time Olympic gold medallist was reportedly detained on Feb. 17.

According to a report from TASS on March 17, a Moscow court extended her pretrial detention until May 19. The court also denied Griner’s request for house arrest, according to Insider. Griner, who is 6-foot-9, has complained about the jail cell’s beds being too small for her, per the TASS report. She shares the cell with two other English-speaking inmates, and both reportedly have no prior convictions and are being held for “drug-related articles,” per NBC

Griner made a brief Russian courtroom appearance on May 13, when she reportedly learned her pretrial detention was extended until June 18. Alexander Boykov, Griner’s lawyer, told the AP that the extension’s relatively brief length means his client will soon get a trial. The lawyer added Griner did not have “any complaints about the detention conditions,” but it’s unclear whether the bed-size situation has been resolved. 

On March 18, Ekaterina Kalugina, a representative of Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission that oversees how prisoners are treated, said the U.S. consul had yet to visit Griner. Kalugina says this is despite Russian authorities saying they will “create all conditions” for a visit to occur. 

That changed less than a week later. On March 22, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told CNN a U.S. Embassy official was granted “consular access” to Griner, allowing them to evaluate her condition.

“Our official found Brittney Griner to be in good condition, and we will continue to do everything we can to see to it that she is treated fairly throughout this ordeal,” Price said.

The visit comes after the U.S. embassy in Moscow “repeatedly asked” to speak with Griner immediately after detainment but was “consistently and improperly” denied access. John Sullivan, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, then told the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “follow international law and basic human decency to allow consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia, including those in pre-trial detention.” 

Russia launched a full-scale military attack against Ukraine on Feb. 24, prompting the U.S. and other countries to issue severe sanctions against Russia. It’s unclear whether Russia’s detainment of Griner, who has played for the Russian Premier League team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the past few WNBA offseasons, was a retaliatory act. 

Regardless of Russia’s intentions, the U.S. government reportedly plans to initiate a “drawn-out battle” to return Griner to her home country. 

How did American politicians immediately react? 

The immediate reaction to Griner’s situation was somewhat muted among American politicians over concerns of the former WNBA champion’s privacy.  However, three U.S. congress members representing Griner’s home state of Texas gave their support. 

Texas congressman Colin Allred, who is also a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was personally working with the State Department to accelerate Griner’s return to the U.S. Allred described the situation as “extremely concerning.” 

“Every day for anyone being held, particularly being held overseas, is a lifetime,” said Allred, a former NFL linebacker who played football at Baylor in the early 2000s. “I recognize that for her friends and family, this must be an incredibly difficult time. And for her, I’m sure the uncertainty about what’s happening is probably just terrible. And so, hopefully, whatever happens, we can get this moving quickly and get her out.”

In a Twitter post, Texas congressman Joaquin Castro said he’s “closely monitoring” Griner’s Russian detention and demanded she be “safely returned.” 

“This follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining and imprisoning US citizens,” Castro wrote on March 5. ” … US citizens are not political pawns.”

Castro’s comments were similar to those of Texas congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Speaking in front of a crowd, Jackson Lee called for Griner’s release and said she requested the State Department prioritize her case. 

“If there’s challenges and concerns about her actions, it should be dealt with diplomatically and she should be released,” Jackson Lee said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House press secretary Jen Psaki both declined to directly comment on Griner’s situation immediately after her detention went public, citing privacy concerns. Psaki noted federal privacy law requires the U.S. government to get written consent from a person in detention to discuss their situation. 

Blinken did say his department is “doing everything we can” to ensure the rights of all Americans detained in Russia are “upheld and respected.”

“Whenever an American is detained anywhere in the world, we of course stand ready to provide every possible assistance, and that includes in Russia,” Blinken said on March 6.

Assistance won’t be easy to provide in Griner’s case, according to California congressman John Garamendi. Garamendi, who also serves on the U.S. House Committee on Armed Services, said the “nonexistent” diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Russia will make securing her release “very difficult.” 

“Our diplomatic relationships with Russia are nonexistent at the moment,” Garamendi told CNN in March. “Perhaps during the various negotiations that may take place, she might be able to be one of the solutions. I don’t know.”

Garamendi added Griner’s sexual orientation — she is a lesbian — could make the process even more challenging because “Russia has some very, very strict LGBT rules and laws.”

While it’s yet to be determined whether Russia detained Griner to provoke the U.S., the State Department urged American citizens to immediately leave Russia to avoid the “potential for harassment” in an updated advisory on March 5. 

Why was Griner in Russia? 

Griner is one of about 70 WNBA players — nearly half the league’s 144 roster spots — competing internationally during the 2022 offseason. She was also among the dozen-plus playing in Russia or the Ukraine — all of whom, aside from Griner, have left. UMMC Ekaterinburg alone has five WNBA All-Stars in Griner, reigning WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart, Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot on its current roster.

While Griner and Co. have varying reasons for playing internationally, many do so for financial purposes. The WNBA’s minimum and maximum salaries are $60,471 and $228,094, respectively. Those numbers are far below what the NBA offers, as that league — which plays 82 games compared to the WNBA’s 36 — has a minimum salary of $925,000 and maximum salaries starting at more than $28 million. 

According to Cherelle Griner, Brittney Griner plays overseas because of the WNBA’s pay. Griner reportedly earns $1 million per season to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg.

“BG would wholeheartedly love to not go overseas,” Cherelle Griner told ABC News on May 25. “She has only had one Thanksgiving in the States in nine years since she’s been pro, and she misses all that stuff. Just because, you know, she can’t make enough money in the WNBA, like, to sustain her life.”

The WNBA’s relatively low salaries forced former league MVP — and Griner’s Mercury teammate — Diana Taurasi to accept a contract worth a reported $1.5 million from UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2015 even though it would keep her from that year’s WNBA season. 

“The year-round nature of women’s basketball takes its toll and the financial opportunity with my team in Russia would have been irresponsible to turn down,” Taurasi wrote in an open letter to fans. “They offered to pay me to rest and I’ve decided to take them up on it. I want to be able to take care of myself and my family when I am done playing.”

In 2020, the WNBA and WNBPA agreed to a new eight-year CBA that would raise the average salary to nearly $130,000, its first time above six figures. The WNBA’s maximum salary was $117,500 the year prior.

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