Britney Griner’s guilty verdict strengthens supporters’ resolve

Nothing about Thursday’s hearing in a Russian court where the WNBA star Britney Griner was tried on charges of drug smuggling, which surprised experts familiar with the Russian trial. Griner was convicted and sentenced to Correctional Facility nine years, just one year short of the maximum term.

Her conviction was considered a formality and a prerequisite for a prisoner exchange that could lead to her return to the United States.

“I think negotiations will accelerate now that there is a conclusion to the alleged lawsuit,” said Jonathan Franks, who has worked with the family Trevor R. Reid, a former US Marine who was returned to the United States in April in a prisoner exchange with Russia. So it was with Reed. sentenced to nine years or a prison sentence after he was convicted of assault, a charge that his family considers far-fetched and politically motivated.

“One thing that Americans need to understand is that we are dealing with thugs,” Franks said. “People who take our people hostage or wrongfully hold them are just state-sponsored kidnapping. They are thugs. Sometimes, to get the attention of thugs, they only understand force.”

Last week, the US State Department said it had made “essential offerto the Russian government for Griner and Paul N. Whelan, an American who has been in Russian custody since 2018. Whelan was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison. But now that Griner’s trial is over, experts have said even more patience will be needed from those who support her. After US Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken publicly stated that the United States offered Russia a deal, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the exchange of prisoners was negotiated quietly.

William Pomeranz, acting director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on Russian law, said: “Russia has no incentive to do any favors for the United States.”

“I am not optimistic that a diplomatic deal will take place anytime soon,” he said, pointing to Peskov’s statement and the poor relations between the two countries due to the war in Ukraine.

Griner has been in Russian custody since February. March 17, when Russian customs officers at an airport near Moscow said they found hash oil, a cannabis derivative, in a vape pen in her luggage. In May, the US State Department announced that it considered Griner “wrongly detained,” meaning that her case would be handled by the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs. The State Department said it will make every effort to secure her release, no matter how her trial ends.

In both the United States and Russia, Griner’s teammates and coaches offered their support. Members of her Russian team, UMMC Yekaterinburg, testified on Griner’s behalf during her trial.

In the United States, several WNBA players who also played in Russia coordinated the social media campaign on Wednesday, the day before her trial ended.

Nneka Ogwumike, WNBA Players Union President, posted a photo on instagram or she plays for her Russian team Dynamo Kursk.

“Like me, she has great memories of the time she played and returned year after year to compete in Russia,” wrote Ogwumike. She added: “I ask that in honor of all our great experience in competitions in Russia and around the world, out of love and humanity, you show her mercy and understanding. Please be kind to Britney Griner.”

While the players’ appeals did not appear to affect the course of the trial, they did make a difference, showing solidarity with Griner and her UMMC-Ekaterinburg teammates who spoke on her behalf, said Kimberley St. Julian-Warnon, Russian historian who advised the players’ union at the time of Griner’s detention.

“Britney’s Russian teammates and her coach, those who testified on her behalf in Russia, were really putting themselves at risk because Russia just recently passed even stricter laws on cooperation with foreigners,” the senator said. Julian-Warnon said. She said the WNBA players’ public statements “gave them a nod and told them they appreciated what they did.”

St. Julian-Warnon began consulting for the union shortly after Griner’s arrest. She said she initially told the players to expect a lengthy process, that they should not expect Griner to be released pending trial, and that even if her sentence were light, it would mean at least five years.

Now that Griner has been convicted, St. Julian-Warnon still calls for caution.

“This does not mean that she will be participating in a prisoner exchange anytime soon,” she said. “Just keep that in mind because it’s still a process, but it’s the next step in the process. It could be weeks. It could be months. A lot depends on Russia.”

Terri Jackson, executive director of the WNBA Players Union, said Greener’s conviction will not change how players support her. For several months, they publicly spoke out and showed their support, such as wearing T-shirts with the initials Griner and the number 42 on the jersey.

“It’s just really sad and sickening for Britney and I hope she gets home as soon as possible,” said Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart, a four-time All-Star who played with Griner in Russia. “Now that the trial is over and the verdict is out, I know she must be in a very emotional state and I just want her to know that we are still continuing to do everything we can to bring her home.”

Asked if the NBA and WNBA would change anything in their tactics, Mike Bass, an NBA spokesman, said both leagues will continue to support the State Department, the White House, and other allies in and out of government in efforts to bring Britney home. as quickly as possible.”

Tensions between the United States and Russia have not eased in the months since Griner’s arrest. She was imprisoned shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the United States sent military equipment to Ukraine to fight Russia. On Monday, the White House said it would send $550 million in additional weapons for Ukraine for the war.

St. Julian-Warnon said that this could interfere with the negotiations for the release of Griner, which is not a problem for Russia. “It only undermines the credibility of the Biden administration,” she said. “Russia has no incentive to do something immediately.”

This position is likely not to please Griner’s supporters. Paris Hatcher is the Executive Director of Black Feminist Future, a social justice organization that created the #BringBrittneyHome hashtag campaign. She said her initial excitement about a possible prisoner swap for Griner dissipated after Thursday’s verdict.

Hatcher said the organization will consider options to keep the Greener case at the center of political attention.

“Does this mean we will be reaching out to the elected officials we spoke to about the critical nature of this case?” Hatcher said. “Often you just don’t have enough information. Now you have information. Whatever makes you hesitate, it’s been six months.”

Hatcher added: “Whatever exchange happens, let it happen. Do this.”