Why Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in Russian court
Women’s NBA star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Russian court on Thursday. However, in a statement she read before the judge, Griner maintained there was no intent to break Russian law.
"I'd like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn't want to break the law," Griner said in English, which was then translated to Russian for the court proceedings, according to Reuters. "I'd like to give my testimony later. I need time to prepare."
Griner was arrested in February at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, in Russia, after some hash oil was found in her luggage, for which she now could face a prison sentence of up to ten years.
Despite the serious charges against her, an official admission of guilt was the best option for Griner, mainly because the nature of the Russian legal system meant there was “essentially zero chance” she would be acquitted, said TJ Quinn, ESPN investigative reporter.
Also, an admission of guilt is a necessary pretext to a potential prisoner exchange. Russian authorities have signaled an interest in a prisoner swap that would free Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer who is currently serving a 25-year sentence in the United States, according to Russian media.
In early May, the Biden administration declared Griner to be wrongfully detained by Russia's government. The U.S. believes the Putin regime ordered Griner's arrest so it could use her as leverage.
"Wrongful detention as a bargaining chip is a threat to the safety of everyone traveling and living abroad," U.S. Ambassador to Russia John J. Sullivan said in May. He and other U.S. officials have said their top priority is to help Griner and other citizens detained in Russia.
Even though there’s talks about the prisoner swap, the Kremlin has said the case isn't politically motivated. Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that he wouldn't comment on an ongoing court case, but he then spoke about what he said are the facts of the matter.
"I can only state the facts," Peskov said, saying Griner was apprehended "with forbidden compounds that contained narcotic substances." He added, "Only the court can do something in terms of handing down any verdicts."
Like many WNBA players, Griner earns far more than her WNBA salary by playing overseas during the U.S. offseason. For years she has played for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, which is owned by oligarch Iskander Makhmudov. The team has had longstanding ties to the Mercury.
"They know who they have," Terri Jackson, executive director of the union representing WNBA players, told NPR, noting Griner's decorated career both in the U.S. and Russia."She's a hero in their country. They love women's basketball," he said.
The State Department recently affirmed its Level 4 advisory against travel to Russia. Aside from the disruptions related to the country's invasion of Ukraine, Americans are at risk in Russia, the agency said.
"Russian security services have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, singled out U.S. citizens in Russia, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence," the advisory states.
On the 4th of July, Griner made a direct appeal to US president Joe Biden for her freedom in a handwritten letter that was delivered to the White House, according to her representatives.
An excerpt of the letter shared by Griner’s representatives with The Guardian said: “I’m terrified I might be here forever. I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home.”
It invoked America’s Independence Day, mentioning her father’s service in the US Marine Corps, which included two tours of duty in Vietnam.
Image: Paul Weaver/Unsplash
“On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those men who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War Veteran,” she wrote. “It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year.”
Image: Sydney Rae/Unsplash
President Biden answered Griner’s letter and talked to her wife, Charelle, to assure her he’s working on bringing her back.
Nevertheless, Griner’s wife, told CNN that she feels not enough is being done by US diplomats, despite their best intentions.“I don’t think the maximum amount of effort is being done because again, the rhetoric and the actions don’t match,” she said in an interview about a month ago.
The WNBA player’s trial began Friday, a week ago. In the court’s first session, prosecutors unsealed their case against Griner and on the second one she pleaded guilty.
Griner's lawyer, Alexander Boikov, told NPR, prosecutors will likely have four hearings before the defense gets its turn. That means, there will be two more hearings before Boikov gets to intervene on Griner’s behalf.
The next hearing is slated for Thursday, July 14. A Russian judge has ordered Griner to be detained for the length of her trial.