Brittney Griner admitted to using drugs on Thursday in a Russian courtroom as the dispute over the future of the American basketball star moved more and more into the diplomatic sphere — a daunting prospect for Ms. Griner’s supporters given the disagreement between Washington and Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine.
On the second day of her trial, Ms. Griner appeared before a judge outside the Russian capital and claimed that she had unintentionally brought a prohibited substance into the country because she had packed quickly. When Ms. Griner arrived in Russia in February to play basketball, the Russian authorities claim they found vape cartridges containing 0.7 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage. She has been detained ever since and could spend the next 10 years in a penal colony.
“Your honor, I’d like to enter a guilty plea. But no intention was present. According to a Reuters reporter in the courtroom, Ms. Griner said in English, “I didn’t want to break the law,” which was later translated into Russian.
On the next day of her trial, which is scheduled for July 14, Ms. Griner informed the court that she would elaborate. She is accused of smuggling a “significant amount” of drugs as well as possessing illegal drugs.
By entering a guilty plea, Ms. Griner has possibly expedited the resolution of her case, opening the door for either a plea agreement with the US or, possibly, a clemency application.
Her best chance, according to experts, is that the Biden administration secure her freedom by releasing a Russian detained in the United States, as a guilty verdict is all but guaranteed in a Russian legal system that heavily favors the prosecution. One particular prisoner’s name has come to light: Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is currently serving a 25-year prison term.
However, according to Russian officials, any such negotiations can only start after the Griner trial’s formalities are finished.
When asked about a potential exchange on Thursday, a deputy foreign minister named Sergei A. Ryabkov responded, “It is obvious that we have not finished the necessary judicial procedures. There are no nominal, formal, or procedural grounds for taking further action until this occurs.
The 31-year-old Ms. Griner is a seven-time W.N.B.A. All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and the first openly gay athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Nike. American officials insist they are doing everything in their power to secure her release. President Biden’s letter was presented to Ms. Griner at the hearing on Thursday by Elizabeth Rood, the chargé d’affaires at the American Embassy in Moscow.
Ms. Rood informed the media outside the courtroom that “Ms. Griner was able to read that letter.” “I would like to emphasize once more how committed the United States government is to safely bringing Ms. Griner and all American citizens wrongfully detained home.”
However, Mr. Biden has few options to secure her freedom given that tensions between the United States and Russia are at their highest point in decades as a result of President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This was emphasized by Mr. Ryabkov on Thursday when he made some of the most detailed remarks about Ms. Griner’s case made by any Russian official in the nearly five months she has been detained.
Despite how much modern politicians love this genre, Mr. Ryabkov claimed that in this particular case hype and publicity only get in the way. “This interferes in the truest sense of the word, not just detracts from the case. The need for silence is therefore present.
The American side would benefit from “a serious reading of the signals that they received from Russia, from Moscow, through specialized channels,” he suggested, adding that Moscow was open to negotiations regarding Ms. Griner’s fate.
Although Russian state media has speculated that the Kremlin may be interested in trading the American athlete for Mr. Bout, 55, a former Soviet military officer who made a fortune in international arms trafficking before being apprehended in a federal sting operation, Mr. Ryabkov did not specify what those signals were.
Ms. Griner could spend years in prison if a deal is not reached.
Russian attorney Arseny Levinson, who has worked on cases similar to Ms. Griner’s, called her case “absurd” because it was obvious that she had no criminal intent. Although her prosecution has political overtones, Mr. Levinson said that in many ways it is typical for Russia, where the legal system frequently “imitates the fight against drug smuggling.”
Most of the time, according to Mr. Levinson, Russian courts would impose a suspended sentence on those accused of Ms. Griner’s crime. However, he warned that her chances may be worse because it is more difficult to enforce suspended sentences against noncitizens.
Russians typically receive much milder sentences than foreigners do, according to Mr. Levinson, who works for a nonprofit that assists drug-related crime suspects.
This week, a Russian official did mention a possible route Ms. Griner might take. No one is preventing Brittney Griner from using the appeals process and asking for clemency, according to a foreign ministry spokesman.
After she admitted guilt on Thursday, it seemed her advisors might be setting the stage for just that.
“Given the nature of her case, the negligible amount of the substance, and B.G.’s personality and history of positive contributions to international and Russian sport,” her legal team stated in a statement. “The defense hopes that the court will consider the plea as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence.”
Even if the US and Russia agreed to an exchange to return Ms. Griner, it might take years for the deal to be implemented. After being detained in Russia for more than two years on what his family believed to be false assault charges, ailing former U.S. Marine Trevor R. Reed was released in April as part of a prisoner swap.
New Mexico’s former governor and former ambassador to the UN, Bill Richardson, engaged in months of covert but ferocious diplomacy to free Mr. Reed. Mr. Richardson has worked tirelessly for years to secure hostage releases through his nonprofit organization. Currently, Mr. Richardson is assisting with Ms. Griner’s case as well as that of Paul Whelan, a former Marine who has been held in custody in Russia since 2018.
Ms. Griner’s guilty plea was understandable, according to Mickey Bergman, executive director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, in an email. In an email, Mr. Bergman stated, “We believe that any prisoner in a situation like this needs to do what they believe can help them survive the ordeal.” She is in a life-or-death struggle.
What You Need to Know About Brittney Griner’s Russian Arrest
What brought her to Russia? Griner spent the W.N.B.A. off-season competing for a foreign team in Russia. The players in the league frequently forgo rest in favor of international competition for a variety of reasons, but money is frequently the primary driver.
Is there a connection between this and Ukraine? It is still unknown whether Ms. Griner was specifically targeted by Russia as leverage against the United States during the tense standoff between the United States and Russia over the latter’s invasion of Ukraine.
The American diplomat Ms. Rood, who was present at the court hearing on Thursday, reported that Ms. Griner had informed her that “she’s eating well, she’s able to read books.”
Ms. Rood said, “Under the circumstances, she’s doing well.
In a message sent through a messaging app, Ms. Griner’s attorney, Aleksandr Boikov, stated that his client admitted to the court on Thursday that she “was carrying substances prohibited in Russia unintentionally.”
In a phone interview, he claimed, “She was packing quickly. Due to negligence, cartridges “appeared in her luggage.”
Ms. Griner wrote Mr. Biden a handwritten letter after her trial started last week, pleading with him not to “forget about” her and other American prisoners of war.
According to a statement issued by the White House, Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Ms. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, on Wednesday. The president read a draft of a letter he intended to send to Brittney Griner during the call, according to the statement. Additionally, he stated that his administration was using “every possible means to bring Brittney home.”
In a public statement, Cherelle Griner expressed her displeasure with Vice President Biden’s administration’s efforts to secure the release of her wife.
Cherelle Griner expressed gratitude to Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris in a statement on Wednesday, thanking them “for the time they spent with me and for the commitment they expressed to getting B.G. home.”
Regardless of how the trial turns out, the US government has declared Brittney Griner to have been “wrongfully detained” and promised to work to secure her release.
The Phoenix Mercury, Brittney Griner’s W.N.B.A. team, rallied in her favor on Wednesday.
Cherelle Griner said at the rally, “What and how I feel today is a deeper emotion than hurt.” “I’m annoyed. I’m angry that it has been 140 days since my wife last spoke to me, our family, or our friends. I’m angry that my wife won’t receive justice. I am aware that each of you is frustrated, which is why you are here.
A few hundred supporters, according to The Associated Press, were present at the rally, and Cherelle Griner asked them to make sure the Biden administration knew “they have our support to do whatever is necessary” to bring her wife home.
Letters have been the only form of communication Brittney Griner has had with her American relatives and friends. Forward Brianna Turner from the Mercury wrote to her recently to share memories of their time spent together. Ms. Turner remarked, “One of my favorite moments wasn’t even on the court. “We traveled to Indiana, rented Lime scooters, and simply rode all over the city.”
Additionally, Ms. Turner informed her teammate that she would be a season-long honorary All-Star. Ms. Griner hasn’t participated in the W.N.B.A. this season because she’s been in jail since February.
Ms. Turner laughed and added, “And B.G. has a great sense of humor — she told me that she probably would have the worst stat line, and she wouldn’t be in the game.”
She then expressed her seriousness once more, saying, “We must get her home. She should go back home. She must return to her home and rejoin her family and friends.