WNBA star Brittney Griner faces tough Russian drug laws with extended pre-trial detention

News 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 effort to return home quickly would be diplomatic negotiations and not the legal system, former officials of the US State Department and Russian legal experts say.

If convicted of drug possession, Griner could be jailed for at least five years with a maximum of 10 years — and jail time is virtually guaranteed, said William E. Butler, the author of “Russian Law and Legal Institutions” and a Penn professor. State Dickinson Law

Russia’s criminal code may allow a court to impose a sentence less than the minimum sentence, Butler said, but lawyers must present a compelling argument.

As in the US, the Russian legal system has a presumption of innocence, so the Russian authorities should prove their case at trial.

There’s also the possibility of a plea deal, but that wouldn’t be in Griner’s favor, Butler said, as defendants still have to serve half to two-thirds of the maximum sentence.

Russia’s drug laws are widely regarded as draconian and the country sets more people per capita in drug crimes than in the rest of Europe, according to The Moscow Times. Marijuana remains illegal for recreational and medical purposes.

“They’re a zero-tolerance jurisdiction,” Butler said. “It’s something you don’t want to mess with. People are carrying prescription drugs and getting caught up in these laws.”

Griner, 31, has been detained on drug smuggling charges since February when she was found at Moscow airport with alleged cannabis-derived vape cartridges. A request from her lawyers to be placed under house arrest was rejected in March.

It is not uncommon for courts in Russia to postpone pre-trial detention.

But Griner has not made any public statements and it is unclear what she makes of the allegations or what she believes were the circumstances surrounding her arrest. Butler said the silence could be a legal strategy, although Russia’s criminal code also limits the ways the accused can speak publicly about ongoing investigations.

Her lawyer told media on Friday that she has “not made any complaints about the detention conditions”. During her court hearing outside Moscow, Griner was photographed wearing a hoodie, with her head down and her face shielded by her hair.

The Kremlin is confident that Griner — a two-time Olympic gold medalist and powerhouse on the Phoenix Mercury — is no ordinary American detainee, so they likely view her as a potential bargaining chip for when the time is right, said David Salvo, deputy director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a non-partisan organization that seeks to protect democratic institutions.

“They are going to try horse trading,” said Salvo, a former Foreign Ministry diplomat who had worked in Russia. “It’s sad to play with someone’s life as a pawn.”

Griner’s family gets help from former US Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has also worked as an international hostage negotiator. A spokesman for Richardson’s diplomacy efforts said Friday that his team will continue to “work on behalf of Brittney’s family to ensure her safe return home”.

Behind the scenes, the backchannel talks will be crucial if Griner is to be released before trial or if she is convicted — but it will be up to the Russians whether they want to negotiate and what to offer, Salvo said.

Last month, in a surprising twist, Russia released US prisoner Trevor Reed, a former Marine arrested in 2019 and charged with assaulting police after a night of heavy drinking, in exchange for President Joe Biden to deliver the sentence. Konstantin Yaroshenko, a convicted Russian drug trafficker is imprisoned in Connecticut. Reed, who was sentenced to nine years in prison, maintains his innocence.

Russia is said to have a list of other US citizens in custody that they would like to see again. Experts say they would include Viktor Bout, an international arms dealer called the Merchant of Death, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2011 for conspiracy to sell weapons to rebels in Colombia.

The most recent prisoner swap “raised hopes that perhaps the Russians wanted to show they are problem solvers,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University who served as the senior State Department official overseeing from 1997 to 2001. on policy towards Russia. †

But trying to free a person like Griner could have an unintended effect, he added, with Russia making targets of Americans that Moscow could view as valuable assets.

“The US government has to ask itself: do we want to trade a really bad guy like Bout for a good person like Griner who probably made a stupid mistake?” said Sestanovich. “To get here, you have to convince the people who say you’ll just encourage the Russians to arrest more people like Griner.”

Earlier this month, the State Department said Griner is “unjustly detained by the Russian government,” an official classification that means the Presidential Special Envoy to Hostage Hostage, in conjunction with the State Department, may be more aggressive in his efforts. for her release.

A consular officer at the U.S. embassy in Moscow spoke to Griner during her hearing on Friday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said, who told reporters that Griner is “doing as well as can be expected among what can only be described as extremely difficult circumstances.”

But since her arrest, a US embassy has only been allowed access to Griner once and all other requests have been denied.

“The Foreign Ministry cannot storm the Russian prison to bring her home,” Salvo said. “I have no doubt that the department is doing everything it can to make sure they have access to her.”

Fellow WNBA players and the league have shown 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 US government to get BG home safely and as quickly as possible.”

Salvo said loved ones of people detained abroad in countries like Russia should be careful what they say in public, especially if there is still hope that they could be released.

“There’s a delicate dance that their families have to do with trying to get the attention of the State Department and Congress when they don’t want to incite Russia,” Salvo said. “Especially in the case of Brittney, you have the Kremlin’s eyes watching.”

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