Brittney Griner jail sentence: deal or no deal? Russia is upping the ante – including for President Biden

Brittney Griner reportedly heard the guilty verdict translated to her in a small courtroom near Moscow with her head bowed and her eyes blanked.

Brittney Griner jail sentence: deal or no deal? Russia is upping the ante – including for President Biden

Brittney Griner reportedly heard the guilty verdict translated to her in a small courtroom near Moscow with her head bowed and her eyes blanked. She had already pleaded guilty, and her conviction before the Russian court was a foregone conclusion. The real question was therefore: What is the verdict?

There is now certainty about that. Griner, 31, one of America's most successful basketball players, is facing a nine-year sentence in a penal colony. She was also sentenced to a fine of one million rubles (around 16,000 euros) on Thursday. The United States considers her arrest illegal and the verdict "unacceptable". Griner's defense speaks of an "absolutely inappropriate" punishment.

Before the verdict was announced, Griner had turned to the court, asking for an apology and forbearance. She neither wanted to hurt or endanger anyone nor break Russian laws. "I made a mistake," said Griner. "I know everyone keeps talking about politics, but I hope it's far from this courtroom."

There are serious doubts about that. In the spirit of justice, the verdict should not have fallen.

Griner has been convicted of illegal drug possession. In February, so-called vape cartridges and hashish oil were found on her during her arrival at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. It is said to have been 0.5 grams. Since then, Griner, who pleaded guilty under questionable circumstances, has been in custody. The court saw no mitigating circumstances. And the 31-year-old was found guilty of smuggling and possession of a "substantial amount" of drugs, judge Anna Sotnikova said.

Your defense raises serious allegations. "The court completely ignored all evidence of the defense and especially the guilty plea," it said in a written statement. "This contradicts existing legal practice." An appeal will be made.

In court, one of her defense attorneys argued that the average prison sentence for this type of crime is five years, adding that almost a third of those convicted would be paroled.

So what is the Griner case really about?

For US President Joe Biden, the verdict is "another reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongly holding Brittney," according to a statement from the White House immediately after the guilty verdict. "This is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release them immediately."

This should not happen immediately, and certainly not without something in return - even if the Russian judicial system just does its job without political influence. At least that is the Russian interpretation of the matter.

Washington and Moscow are currently negotiating a prisoner swap. The USA, for its part, is demanding the release of professional athlete Griner and US citizen Paul Whelan, who was convicted of espionage at the end of 2018. According to consistent US media reports, Washington is prepared to release the Russian arms dealer Viktor Butt. Nickname: "Merchant of Death". There is no official confirmation for this.

But one thing is certain: the issue is high. On Friday last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine. There was an "open and direct conversation" about an offer to release the imprisoned US citizens, Blinken said. "I urged the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we (...) made."

Only: Moscow does not seem to be satisfied with the proposal.

Russia also wanted to make the extradition of Wadim K., who had been sentenced to life imprisonment in Germany for the so-called Tiergarten murder, a subject of the negotiations. The spokesman for the US National Security Council, John Kirby, confirmed to the US broadcaster CNN that Russian representatives had made such a move. At the same time, Kirby firmly rejected the claim. "Holding two US citizens hostage in exchange for a killer in a third country is not a serious counteroffer," Kirby said. "This is a malicious attempt to evade a very serious US offer and proposal."

It is therefore obvious that Moscow is trying to increase the use of the unusually long prison sentence for the professional athlete Griner in order to achieve more far-reaching concessions from the US side. She wouldn't be the first foreigner to be held in Moscow as a political pledge to assert her own interests.

Against this background, William Pomeranz, Russia expert and director at the Kennan Institute, points out that Griner should serve her sentence in a penal camp and not in prison. "She will probably be sent to a penal colony in Russia where she will not know anyone," Pomeranz told the New York Times. It will be practically impossible to visit them there, especially since the penal colonies are "sometimes very strict". "It will be a tremendous test of her mental state when she ends up in a penal colony."

The US has few options, he told the newspaper. "It will just depend on the Russians and how quickly they want to make a deal."

Shortly after the guilty verdict, Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov found out who had to make the deal. Moscow is "ready to talk about the issue," he said during a visit to Cambodia. For the talks, however, a direct communication channel between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden, which had been agreed between the two, must be maintained.

That should probably put Biden under pressure. Because if he sticks to his previous offer, which Moscow obviously rejects, the US President could be accused of not doing enough to secure his release.

Even before the verdict, public pressure on the US President had grown, for example through the professional basketball league NBA or the "Free Brittney" campaign, to achieve a speedy release. Last but not least, on July 4th, the American Independence Day, Griner himself sent a handwritten letter to the President, which received a lot of attention. It said: "Sitting here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey or any accomplishments, I fear that I may be here forever."

Biden's government could now make a more attractive offer for the prisoner swap to Moscow. The dilemma: professional athlete against arms dealers, possibly even contract killers - the deal seems more than questionable. In addition, there are fears, reports The New York Times, that the potential settlement could also encourage other foreign governments hostile to the United States to detain Americans on questionable grounds, thereby forcing the release of their own wrongdoers.

This puts Biden in a bind. And Russia has another leverage in its arsenal in the ongoing conflict with the United States, which is supporting Ukraine with arms deliveries and has imposed severe sanctions on Moscow.

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