What happens next for Brittney Griner?
By pleading guilty to drug charges in a Russian courtroom this week, the American basketball star Brittney Griner has potentially accelerated her case’s conclusion, clearing a path for either a deal with the United States or, perhaps, a request for clemency.
With a guilty verdict an all but a foregone conclusion in a Russian legal system that heavily favors the prosecution, her best hope, experts say, is that the Biden administration secure her freedom by releasing a Russian held in the United States. The name of one prisoner in particular has emerged: Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence.
But any such negotiation can take place only after the formalities of the Griner trial are over, Russian officials say.
“It is clear that we have not completed the necessary judicial procedures,” a deputy foreign minister, Sergei A. Ryabkov, told Russian news agencies on Thursday when asked about a potential exchange. “Until this happens, there are no nominal, formal or procedural grounds for any further steps.”
Ms. Griner still faces the conviction and sentencing phases of her trial, and her next date in court is scheduled for Thursday, July 14.
Ms. Griner is charged with illegal drug possession and with smuggling a “significant amount.” Appearing before a judge outside the Russian capital on the second day of her trial, Ms. Griner said she had unintentionally carried a banned substance into the country because she had packed in a hurry. The Russian authorities say they found vape cartridges with 0.7 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage when Ms. Griner arrived in February to play basketball, and she has been detained ever since, facing 10 years in prison in a penal colony.
Hours after her guilty plea Thursday, it appeared that her advisers might be laying the groundwork for diplomatic efforts between U.S. and Russian officials to take the lead.
“Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and B.G.’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence,” her legal team said in a statement.
American officials insist that they are doing all they can to secure the release of Ms. Griner, 31, a seven-time W.N.B.A. All-Star, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first openly gay athlete signed to an endorsement contract by Nike. At Thursday’s hearing, the chargé d’affaires at the American Embassy in Moscow, Elizabeth Rood, handed Ms. Griner a letter from President Biden.
But with tensions between the United States and Russia at their worst level in decades because of President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Biden has few options to secure her freedom. That was underscored by Mr. Ryabkov on Thursday as he made some of the most extensive comments by any Russian official about Ms. Griner’s case in the nearly five months she has spent in custody.
“Hype and publicity, for all the love for this genre among modern politicians, only gets in the way in this particular instance,” Mr. Ryabkov said. “This does not just distract from the case, but creates interference in the truest sense of the word. That’s why silence is needed here.”
He hinted, however, that Moscow was interested in negotiating over Ms. Griner’s fate, saying she would be helped by “a serious reading by the American side of the signals that they received from Russia, from Moscow, through specialized channels.”
Mr. Ryabkov did not specify what those signals were, though the Russian state news media has suggested that the Kremlin might be interested in exchanging the American athlete for Mr. Bout, 55, a former Soviet military officer who made a fortune in global arms trafficking before he was caught in a federal sting operation.
Without a deal, Ms. Griner could face years in prison.