WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced to 9 years in prison in Russia. How likely is a prisoner swap?

The World
woman walking through courtroom hallway

In Moscow, 31-year-old WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced by a Russian court to nine years of prison time.

Griner was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport in February when security found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. 

Last month, Griner pleaded guilty to possessing the drugs but said she packed them by mistake. 

In a closing statement that Griner gave before her sentence was handed down, from behind the bars of a cage inside the courtroom, she said, “I understand everything that is being said against me, the charges that are against me, that’s why I plead guilty, but I had no intent to break any Russian law,” adding, “I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn[s], and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.”

The US government called Griner’s sentence on Thursday “a miscarriage of justice.” 

Now, Griner’s release will likely come down to a potential prisoner swap with the Russian government.

US officials say that Griner was “wrongfully detained” in Russia. They say they’ve been working tirelessly to bring her home and that they’ve offered a “significant proposal” for her release and the release of another American in Russian detention, Paul Whelan. 

News reports say that the Biden administration is considering a prisoner swap in which the Russian government would release both Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, in exchange for the release of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on Russian history, has been following the case closely.

Bout, she said, “was convicted for arms dealing including dealing arms to FARC in Colombia, so he has a 25-year sentence, he served 10 years of that in federal prison, his lawyers have been pushing for a swap, the Russian states been interested in him since he was arrested, so I think that’s an important part of this.”

But a swap could be difficult to achieve, she said, partly because of how high-profile the Griner case has become.

“The Biden administration could have less wiggle room in terms of negotiating with Russia, because Russian knows how much public pressure is on Joe Biden to get Brittney Griner out, and Russia has always had all the cards in the situation, but now Russia understands that Biden will respond to public pressure from the United States.”

And that means Russian officials will be likely to drive a hard bargain especially since relations between the US and Russia are so bad right now. 

“If Russia makes more demands and they want more people out of American federal prisons, they have leverage now to do so.”

Now that Griner has been sentenced in Moscow, negotiations for any possible prisoner swap can begin. 

“This is standard for the Russian criminal justice system in general, but particularly toward Americans who’ve been detained and convicted in Russia, now that there’s a conviction, this step is done and now we’re on to a significant conversation about negotiations who will be swapped for who and timeline for that to happen.”

US officials say that Whelan was also “wrongfully convicted.” He’s served more than three years in prison, on what are widely believed to be trumped-up charges. 

Outside the courthouse on Thursday, Elizabeth Rood, the deputy chief of mission at the American Embassy in Moscow, delivered a statement to the press.

“Secretary of State Blinken, President Biden’s national security team and the entire American government remain committed to bringing Ms. Griner home safely to her family, friends and loved ones.”

Until then, Griner will likely start serving her 9-year sentence at a Russian prison colony as her friends, family and fans wait for a deal that would set her free.

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