The odds for justice in Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian Russia are already slim—and especially, we may assume, for a dreadlocked African American icon of the international LGBTQ community. But the war in Ukraine and the geopolitical rivalry between Moscow and Washington are now explicitly at play in the case of basketball superstar Brittney Griner.
It’s more than four months since Griner was arrested at the Moscow airport, allegedly in possession of an undetermined number of cannabis-oil vape pens. Orders for her pre-trial detention have been repeatedly extended—most recently for six months on June 27. Finally, on July 1, her trial opened at a court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki.
Griner showed up wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt, and was told that she would have to wait to file a plea. It was also revealed that she is charged with possession of just two vape cartridges, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil. That would seem to exclude charges of “large-scale” trafficking (the worst-case scenario), but she could still face prison time under the notorious Article 228 of the Russian penal code, which outlaws “the making, acquisition, storage, transportation, sending, or sale” of illegal drugs in any quantity, and has often been used for purposes of political persecution.
The Phoenix Mercury WNBA star, who had been playing a season for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg, could face 10 years in prison if convicted on dubious charges of “large-scale” transportation of drugs. Fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted. And unlike in the United States, acquittals can be appealed by the prosecution and reversed. Russia has the highest number of people per capita imprisoned for drug offenses in all of Europe, with some 100,000 behind bars on Article 228 violations.
So that would be bad enough, even if Griner’s arrest hadn’t come less than a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, plunging the world into crisis and bringing US-Russia tensions to a fever pitch not seen even during the peak of the Cold War.
In May, the US State Department officially designated Griner as “wrongfully detained.” This means Washington isn’t just going to wait for her case to play out in the Russian courts but commits to actively negotiate for her release. Griner’s case has been assigned to the US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA), Roger Carstens.
The SPEHA played a key role in securing the release of US citizen and Marine veteran Trevor Reed from Russia in April. Detained for over two years on charges of confronting a police officer (which he denied), Reed had gone on hunger strike at the penal colony where he was being held. Reed was swapped for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot sentenced in 2011 for drug smuggling.
But there has seemingly been no progress for Griner since the designation.
On June 20, racial justice activist group Until Freedom led a “Free Brittney Griner” march and rally in New York’s Harlem. Demonstrators chanted Griner’s name as they marched from the iconic Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building to the Harriet Tubman Memorial.
As the Chicago Tribune reported, Khristina Williams, founder of GirlsTalkSportsTV, told the crowd: “We want to make sure we keep her name out there. When it comes to Black women, but especially Black queer women in America, there isn’t a lot of support. We want to continue to keep that story out there and bring it more attention.”
Cherelle Griner ‘Very Pissed’
Brittney’s wife, Cherelle Griner, had her faith in the State Department sorely tested on June 18. That was the couple’s fourth anniversary, and a phone call had been arranged—their first since Brittney’s arrest. The call between the Russian jail and their Phoenix home was to be patched through the US embassy in Moscow. But the date happened to fall on a Saturday, when the embassy is closed. Apparently, this hadn’t been thought of in advance, and nobody was there to patch through the call as Cherelle attempted some dozen times over several hours.
That Monday, the State Department issued a statement saying that “we deeply regret that Brittney Griner was unable to speak with her wife because of a logistical error.”
But Cherelle Griner told the Associated Press she was “very pissed” about the foul-up. She added: “I have zero trust in our government right now. If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home? Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call.”
Paired with Other Cases
There is speculation that Brittney Griner may be paired with other Americans held in Russia if some kind of swap is worked out. On June 18, the same Khimki court that’s hearing Griner’s case sentenced a former member of the US diplomatic staff to 14 years in prison for “large-scale” cannabis smuggling. (Russian law defines a “large amount” as 100 grams, about 3.5 ounces, or more.)
Marc Fogel had previously worked at the US embassy in Moscow but was employed as an English teacher at the city’s Anglo-American School at the time of his arrest. He was similarly detained at the airport, allegedly with an unspecified quantity of cannabis, last August. Fogel, whose lawyer said had only carried 17 grams (0.6 ounces), was a registered medical user in the US following back surgery. He said he was unaware that Russia doesn’t recognize any right to medical marijuana.
Others speculate that Griner could be traded in tandem with Paul Whelan, a former US Marine and private security firm director who was sentenced in 2020 to 16 years for espionage—a charge Washington rejects as a frame-up.
Any putative negotiations by definition must take place behind closed doors. But the lack of any outward sign of progress is frustrating for Griner’s loved ones and supporters. Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, appealed to President Biden and Vice President Harris for speedy action to bring Brittney home in a June 29 tweet: “The negotiation for her immediate release regardless of the legal proceedings should remain a top priority and we expect @POTUS and @VP to do everything in their power, right now, to get a deal done to bring her home.”
And Cherelle Griner told Good Morning America on June 1 that she wanted to speak directly with Biden. “I keep hearing he has the power, she’s a political pawn,” she said. “If they’re holding her because they want you to do something, then I want you to do it.”
Traded for the Merchant of Death?
But that something could turn out to be pretty odious. Russian news media have repeatedly speculated that Griner could be traded for a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the US. Viktor Bout, dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” is serving a 25-year term for aiding a terrorist organization and conspiracy to kill US citizens.
Bout, accused by both the UN and human rights groups of violating multiple arms embargos, was arrested at a five-star hotel in Bangkok in March 2008. Thai authorities acted at the behest of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. A former KGB officer, Bout allegedly sold arms to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Colombia’s FARC guerillas and warring sides in several African conflicts. His activities were chronicled in a book, Merchant of Death, by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, and he was also the reported inspiration for a 2005 film, Lord of War, in which he was played by Nicholas Cage. The book claimed that planes from the Bout’s fleet made several airdrops of weapons to the FARC in 1998 and 1999. He was extradited to the US in 2010, and convicted the next year—over the bitter objections of Moscow.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, asked on CNN June 26 whether a joint swap of Griner and Whelan for Bout was under consideration, neatly dodged the question.
“As a general proposition…I’ve got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,” Blinken said. But he added: “I can’t comment in any detail on what we’re doing, except to say this is an absolute priority.”
‘Nothing About This is Justice’
Trading a death merchant such as Bout for someone convicted of possessing cannabis vape pens is an obvious moral absurdity. Driving home the bitter irony, video footage shows that at the time of her arrest at the airport in February, Griner was wearing a jacket with the words “BLACK LIVES FOR PEACE.”
And the contradiction is heightened by the inevitable notion that Griner was set up in a cynical stratagem by the Russian intelligence services. On the June 28 broadcast of ABC’s The View, co-host Joy Behar suggested that the vape pens were planted in Griner’s luggage.
“How do we know this white man Putin didn’t have his operatives plant that stuff on her?” Behar said. Whoopi Goldberg seemed to agree, adding: “How dumb would she have to be to not know? This isn’t a stupid woman. This is an amazing woman… So, she knows the rules. So, this is all BS.”
The next day, Cherelle Griner appeared on Rev. Al Sharpton’s SiriusXM radio program, Keepin’ It Real, where she issued her most poignant plea yet.
“Brittney matters. We’re never going to shut up about this until she’s back,” she said. “We’re never going to allow them to take their precious time, because every second that goes by, BG is struggling. She’s a human. She’s struggling. She’s there, terrified. She’s there alone. I mean, even in America, if she was going through a legal proceeding, she wouldn’t be doing it alone.”
Cherelle continued. “Everything about this is just your biggest nightmare. On top of the fact that BG is in a situation where this isn’t even a trial. Russia has a 99% conviction rate. Nothing about this is justice.”