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The complexity of Brittney Griner’s imprisonment, explained

Understanding Griner’s arrest, imprisonment, and the attempt to bring her home.


The “legal” process is now over for Brittney Griner. Russian courts denied an appeal on Monday, ensuring she will spend nine years in prison on a trumped up drug charge unless a diplomatic breakthrough is made to bring her home — a tenuous prospect given the geopolitical climate following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

In the wake of the latest blow to Griner’s freedom it’s time to demand answers. A bad mistake and terrible judgement may have made Griner a political prisoner, but we deserve to know why so many of those representing us are gleefully turning Griner into a political pawn. This extends beyond party lines, past red and blue — resting more on genuine human decency and what we believe in as Americans.

Griner’s charges were always total bullshit

This part is critical in discussing Griner’s situation because it’s the heart of why the entire “do the crime, do the time” argument made by heartless idiots is worthlessly stupid.

Griner was detained by customs and border officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on Feburary 17, 2022. In her possession were vaporizer cartridges containing a total of 0.702 grams of hash oil, which was originally prescribed for her legally in Arizona — but which are illegal in Russia.

The Independent notes that under Russian law, possession of up to two grams of hash is punishable by a fine, or up to 15 days in jail. Under the absolute strictest enforcement of law Griner should have been released with time served following her guilty please on July 7th. Instead she was charged and convicted of drug trafficking, reserved for possession of more than double what Griner had, which also shows an intent to distribute — which she never did. Her sentence of nine years in prison is 219-times the max sentence as established by law.

In 2019 Israeli backpacker Naama Issahar was arrested with over 10 grams of hash in her possession at the same airport Griner was detained. She was convicted of narco-trafficking, but never reached sentencing. Instead she was returned to Israel after three months.

The arrest and conviction were never part of upholding law and order. Rather they existed solely to imprison an American citizen during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to either posture power over the United States, or use her as a bargaining chip.

Griner’s Moscow-based lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, knowing they could face reprisal from the government, bravely made a statement following the appeal condemning the decision.

“The verdict contains numerous defects and we hoped that the court of appeal would take them into consideration. We still think the punishment is excessive and contradicts to the existing court practice.”

In one statement these Russian lawyers said more about the miscarriage of justice directed at a foreign national than most U.S politicians have said about one of their own citizens.

What has the federal government done to help Brittney Griner?

The state department has been negotiating with Russia on a prisoner exchange since early July, which would have brought Griner home. President Biden approved a deal on July 27 which would have swapped Griner and Paul Whelan (who was arrested on questionable espionage charges in 2018), for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed “The Merchant of Death.” Bout is currently serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. for supplying weapons to known terrorist groups, among several other charges.

It quickly became clear Russia was not interested in negotiating in good faith. Despite an equitable offer which would have seen the exchange of 25 year sentences on both sides, the Kremlin added what was tantamount to a poison pill: Requiring Vadim Krasilov in the deal.

Krasilov is a convicted Russian assassin, currently serving a life sentence in Germany for the 2019 murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a field commander who fought Russia in the Second Chechen War, and Russo-Georgian War. It’s widely believed the assassin was an Vympel agent, the special operations division of the FSB (Russia’s equivalent of the CIA). Khangoshvili had been granted asylum by Germany following several attempts on his life in his native Georgia by Russian assassins. The Kremlin knew there was no chance Germany would agree to return Krasilov, and that be asking for him to be included in a prisoner swap it would kill any potential deal.

Is there any chance Griner could still come home?

Absolutely. The entire purpose of the trumped up charges was to gain a bargaining chip against the United States. As a famous athlete Griner made for the perfect foil for Russia to use in a prisoner swap, using her notoriety to ensure they get the return of a lesser-known, but far worse criminal.

That said, the Kremlin is delaying any potential deal for Griner, making it clear they don’t want the current administration to have a political win. Yury Ushakov, an aide to Vladimir Putin and former ambassador to the United States said of a prisoner exchange that Biden was trying to secure Griner’s return with a focus on the midterms.

“In this tense situation, I think that he is thinking first and foremost about the upcoming midterm elections so he keeps emphasizing the need to bring back home the basketball player who was detained for drug smuggling. However, it’s not the main issue that we are concerned about.”

The Kremlin has a vested interest in the upcoming elections, with a clear preference for the GOP to regain power in the house and/or senate. Choosing to delay a prisoner exchange has allowed Griner’s detainment to be used as a campaign point, with two republican congressmen calling on Biden to “bully” Putin to obtain her release, while the GOP house judiciary asserted that if Donald Trump was still president Griner would be free. Both instances operate on the assumption people won’t dig into the details to understand why a prisoner exchange hasn’t taken place, or learn that Russia is intentionally ensuring Griner can be used as a political pawn in midterm elections.

It should be noted, however, that when it’s come to critical votes both legislative branches have largely been in lockstep in their condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine Invasion War Crimes Deterrence and Accountability Act (4/6/22)

  • Democratic: 220 yea, 0 nay, 0 not voting
  • Republican: 198 yea, 7 nay, 4 not voting

Suspending Normal Trade Relations with Russia and Belarus Act (4/8/22)

  • Democratic: 222 yea, 0 nay, 0 not voting
  • Republican: 202 yea, 8 nay, 1 not voting

In both cases the bills passed in the senate 100-0 with both sides in favor. Notable members of the house who have repeatedly voted against Russian sanctions include Marjorie Taylor-Greene (GA), Matt Gaetz (FL), Paul Gosar (AZ) and Lauren Boebert (CO).

The Kremlin has no real interest in keeping Griner long term, and foreign policy experts believe a deal will happen after the midterms regardless of outcome — however there are no guarantees, and traditionally prisoner exchanges take four-to-six months to finalize. This is likely further complicated by the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, so at best it will be mid-2023 or later before Griner is freed.

What can citizens do when it comes to Brittney Griner?

As it pertains directly to Griner’s release there is little we can do to affect change directly, at least in the immediate future. The WNBPA has launched a website, WeAreBG — which allows individuals to send support messages to Griner, which will be delivered to her in prison, as well as provide critical updates about her freedom.

We can, and should challenge our elected officials. Call your local and state representatives to find out what they are doing directly to free Griner. Ask if they’re introducing any legislation not just to free her, but protect future citizens by codifying a government response to the foreign arrest of a U.S. national when it’s clear the charges are false, or fabricated. If your representatives are turning her imprisonment into a hollow campaign point with no substance, let them know that words without actions won’t win votes. Finally, if you live in a district with an elected official who has routinely voted against Russian sanctions, demand to know their reasoning why.

We can, and should, also pressure FIBA to punish Russia beyond their current tournament ban for the nation’s wrongful imprisonment of a basketball player on fabricated charges. We need to dissuade these actions from happening again, especially considering there is a huge benefit for the Kremlin to keep famous athletes as political prisoners in order to use their stardom as a kicker to obtain notorious criminals in prisoner transfers.

What makes Brittney Griner’s imprisonment so frustrating is that it’s brutally simple and intensely complicated at the same time. It’s here we can learn our biggest lesson. Instead of reading the words of politicians and parroting their hollow takes, take the time to learn about a situation. Understand the factors at play. That is how we take the power away from foreign governments using our citizens as political pawns, and break the cycle of ignorance which is preyed on.

The truth is this: There is nothing more Joe Biden or the federal government could do to ensure Griner’s release outside of making moves that abandoned Ukraine. Similarly, if they did initiate a prisoner swap before the midterms it would not be an achievement worthy of praise, let alone votes for unrelated state politicians. It would be clearing the very most basic bar every elected official, regardless of party affiliation, should do in order to secure the safety of its citizens.

Hopefully Brittney Griner will return home as soon as possible. To return to her wife, her family, and friends. Our thoughts and prayers remain with her, to stay strong as she endures conditions we can only imagine.