News on Friday that WNBA star Brittney Griner would be detained in Russia for at least another month made it clear that the American athlete’s best offer to return home anytime soon would be through negotiations diplomatic rather than the judicial system, former US State Department officials and Russian lawyers. experts say.
If Griner is convicted of drug possession, she could be locked up for at least five years with a maximum of 10 years — and jail time is all but guaranteed, said William E. Butler, the author of “Russian Law and Legal Institutions” and Professor at Penn State Dickinson Law.
Russia’s criminal code may allow a court to impose less than the minimum sentence, Butler said, but lawyers must make a compelling case.
Similar to the United States, the Russian legal system grants a presumption of innocence, and therefore Russian authorities would have to prove their case at trial.
There’s also the possibility of a plea deal, but that wouldn’t benefit Griner, Butler said, because defendants are still required to serve half to two-thirds of the maximum sentence.
Russia’s drug laws are widely seen as draconian, and the country imprisons more people per capita for drug-related crimes than the rest of Europe, according to the Moscow Times. Marijuana remains illegal for recreational and medical purposes.
“It’s a zero-tolerance jurisdiction,” Butler said. “It’s something you don’t want to mess with. People were carrying prescription drugs and getting caught up in these laws.”
Griner, 31, has been detained for drug trafficking since February, when she was found at Moscow airport in alleged possession of cannabis-derived vaping cartridges. His lawyers’ request for house arrest was denied in March.
It is not uncommon for Russian courts to prolong pre-trial detention.
But no public statement has been made by Griner and it’s unclear what she makes of the charges or what she says are the circumstances surrounding her arrest. Butler said silence could be a legal strategy, although Russia’s criminal code also limits the means by which the accused can speak publicly about open investigations.
Her lawyer told the media on Friday that she had made “no complaints about the conditions of detention”. During her court hearing outside Moscow, Griner was pictured wearing a hoodie, her head bowed and her face shielded by her hair.
The Kremlin certainly knows that Griner — a two-time Olympic gold medalist and power player on the Phoenix Mercury — is no ordinary American inmate, and so they likely view her as a potential bargaining chip for the time being, said David Salvo, deputy director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to protect democratic institutions.
“They’re going to try to trade in horses,” said Salvo, a former State Department diplomat who had worked in Russia. “It’s sad to gamble with someone’s life like a pawn.”
Griner’s family receives help from former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, who also worked as an international hostage negotiator. A spokesperson for Richardson’s diplomatic efforts said Friday his team continues to “work on behalf of Brittney’s family to ensure her safe return home.”
Behind the scenes, the behind-the-scenes talks will be crucial if Griner is to be freed before her trial or if she is convicted – but that will depend on whether the Russians are willing to negotiate and what they offer, Salvo said.
Last month, in a surprise twist, Russia freed US prisoner Trevor Reed, a former Marine who was arrested in 2019 and charged with assaulting police after a night of heavy drinking, in exchange for the Commutation by President Joe Biden of the sentence of Konstantin Yaroshenko, a convicted Russian drug trafficker serving time in Connecticut. Reed, who was sentenced to nine years in prison, maintained his innocence.
Russia reportedly has a list of other nationals detained in the United States that it would like to see returned. Experts say among them is believed to be Viktor Bout, an international arms dealer dubbed the Merchant of Death who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2011 for conspiring to sell arms to rebels in Colombia.
The latest prisoner swap “raised hopes that maybe the Russians wanted to show they were solving problems,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University, who served as the top official. of the State Department overseeing policy towards Russia from 1997 to 2001. .
But trying to free someone like Griner could have an unintended effect, he added, with Russia making Americans targets Moscow could see as valuable assets.
“The US government has to ask itself: do we want to trade a really bad guy like Bout for a good guy like Griner who probably made a stupid mistake?” said Sestanovich. “To get a yes here, you have to convince people who say you’ll only encourage the Russians to arrest more people like Griner.”
Earlier this month, the State Department said Griner was “wrongfully detained by the Russian government,” an official classification that means the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs, working in coordination with the State Department, may be more aggressive in its efforts to secure his release.
A consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow spoke to Griner during his hearing Friday, said State Department spokesman Ned Price, who told reporters that Griner “is doing as well although expected in what can only be described as extremely difficult circumstances”. .”
But since his arrest, the US Embassy has only had access to Griner once, and all other requests have been denied.
“The State Department cannot storm the Russian prison to bring her home,” Salvo said. “I have no doubt the department is doing everything they can to make sure he has access to her.”
Griner’s wife, other WNBA players and the league showed their solidarity with Griner on social media. The league said in a statement Friday that “today’s news about Brittney Griner was not unexpected, and the WNBA continues to work with the U.S. government to bring BG home safely and as soon as possible.” .
Salvo said relatives of people detained abroad in countries like Russia should be careful what they say publicly – especially when there is still hope they can be released .
“There’s a delicate dance their families have to do to try and get the attention of the State Department and Congress without wanting to inflame Russia,” Salvo said. “Especially in Brittney’s case, you have the eyes of the Kremlin watching you.”