Nothing about Thursday’s proceedings in a Russian courthouse, where the WNBA star Brittney Griner was being tried on drug smuggling charges, surprised experts familiar with Russia’s legal process. Griner was convicted and sentenced to a penal colony for nine years — just one year shy of the maximum sentence.
Her conviction was thought to be a formality and a prerequisite for a prisoner swap that could lead to her return to the United States.
“I think the negotiations will accelerate now that there’s finality to the alleged court process,” said Jonathan Franks, who has worked with the family of Trevor R. Reed, a former US Marine who was returned to the United States in a prisoner swap with Russia in April. Reed was also sentenced to nine years of imprisonment after he was convicted of assault, a charge his family considered to be spurious and politically motivated.
“One thing Americans need to realize is, we’re dealing with thugs,” Franks said. “The people who take our people hostage or wrongfully detain them, it’s just state-sponsored kidnapping. They’re thugs. Sometimes, in order to get thugs’ attention, they only understand strength.”
Last week, the US State Department said it had made a “substantial offer” to the Russian government for Griner and Paul N. Whelan, an American who has been detained in Russia since 2018. Whelan was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. But now that Griner’s trial is over, experts said even more patience would be required from those who support her. After US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken publicly said that the United States had offered Russia a deal, Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, told reporters that prisoner swaps were negotiated quietly.
William Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on Russian law, said: “There’s no incentive for Russia to do any favors for the United States.”
“I am not optimistic that the diplomatic deal will take place any time soon,” he said, pointing to Peskov’s statement and the poor relations between the two countries because of the war in Ukraine.
Griner has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 when Russian customs officials at an airport near Moscow said they had found hashish oil, a cannabis derivative, in a vape pen in her luggage. The US State Department announced in May that it considered Griner to be “wrongfully detained,” which meant her case would be handled by the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. The State Department said it would work to secure her release, no matter how her trial ended.
In both the United States and Russia, Griner’s teammates and coaches have offered their support. Members of her Russian team, UMMC Yekaterinburg, testified on Griner’s behalf during her trial.
In the United States, several WNBA players who had also played in Russia coordinated a social media campaign on Wednesday, the day before her trial ended.
Nneka Ogwumike, the president of the WNBA players’ union, posted a photograph on Instagram of herself playing for her Russian team, Dynamo Kursk.
“Like me, she has great memories from her time playing and returned year after year to compete in Russia,” Ogwumike wrote. She added: “I am asking that in honor of all our great experiences competing in Russia and around the world, out of love and humanity, that you show her mercy and understanding. Please be kind to Brittney Griner.”
Although the players’ appeals did not appear to affect the proceedings, they had value in showing solidarity with Griner and her UMMC Yekaterinburg teammates who spoke on her behalf, said Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a Russian historian who consulted with the players’ union during Griner’s detention.
“Brittney’s Russian teammates and her coach, those who testified on her behalf in Russia really put themselves at risk because Russia just recently passed even more stringent laws about cooperating with foreigners,” St. Julian-Varnon said. She said the WNBA players’ public statements were “giving them a nod and saying they appreciated what they did.”
St. Julian-Varnon started advising the union shortly after Griner was detained. She said early on she told the players to expect a long process, that they should not expect Griner to be released before her trial and that even if her sentence were light, that would mean at least five years.
Now that Griner has been convicted, St. Julian-Varnon is still urging caution.
“This does not mean she’s going to be involved in a prisoner swap any time soon,” she said. “Just keep that in mind because this is still a process, but it’s the next step in the process. It could be weeks. It could be months. A lot of it depends on Russia.”
The Plight of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star has endured months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.
Terri Jackson, the executive director of the WNBA players’ union, said Griner’s conviction would not change how the players support her. For months, they spoke out publicly and made other demonstrations of support, such as wearing T-shirts with Griner’s initials and jersey number, 42.
“Just really feeling sad and feeling sick for Brittney and hoping that she gets home as soon as possible,” said Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, a four-time All-Star who played with Griner in Russia. “Now that the trial is done and the sentencing happened, I know she’s got to be in a very emotional state and just want her to know that we’re still continuing to do whatever we can to get her home.”
When asked if the NBA and WNBA would change anything about their tactics, Mike Bass, an NBA spokesperson, said both leagues would continue to support the State Department, White House “and other allies in and outside government in the effort to get Brittney home as as soon as possible.”
The tense relationship between the United States and Russia has not eased in the months since Griner’s detention. She was jailed shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the United States has sent military equipment to Ukraine in its fight against Russia. On Monday, the White House said it would send $550 million in additional arms to Ukraine for the war.
St. Julian-Varnon said that could hamper negotiations for Griner’s release, which was not a problem for Russia. “It only hurts the credibility of the Biden administration,” she said. “There’s no impetus for Russia to do anything immediately.”
That stance most likely will not sit well with Griner’s supporters. Paris Hatcher is the executive director of Black Feminist Future, a social justice organization that created the #BringBrittneyHome hashtag campaign. She said her initial excitement over a possible prisoner swap for Griner dissipated after Thursday’s verdict.
Hatcher said the organization would consider options to keep Griner’s case on the forefront of the minds of politicians.
“Will that mean that we’ll be reaching back out to elected officials that we had been in conversation with about the critical nature of this case?” Hatcher said. “Oftentimes, you just don’t have enough information. Now, you have the information. Whatever was making you hesitate, it’s been six months.”
Hatcher added: “Whatever swap that needs to happen, let it happen. Make it happen.”