Brittney Griner: What’s next after WNBA star pleads guilty in Russia?

The 31-year American basketball star Brittney Griner has appeared in court in Moscow, where she pleaded guilty to a drug charge.

Her detention and charge followed her being stopped at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, while returning to play for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

Speaking through an interpreter, Ms Griner pleaded guilty to the charge, but said she had intended to break the law.

Rather, her offence was one of “negligence” and she claims she packed her luggage hastily.

Wife of detained basketball star Brittney Griner pleads US government to bring her back

When is Griner due back in court?

The Phoenix Mercury centre and two-time Olympic gold medalist must return to court on Thursday, 14 July, presumably for conviction and sentencing. It is possible that the already delayed process could he postponed again, because two witnesses failed to appear.

Why did Griner plead guilty?

Valena Beety, an innocence litigator and a professor of law at Arizona State University, has been watching Ms Griner’s case.

“In the United States, over 95 per cent of people take a guilty plea, regardless of whether they are guilty or innocent, to avoid a more severe penalty,” she told The Independent. A guilty plea allows people to avoid a trial, and get home to their families faster.

“So that same reasoning sadly applies for Russia, particularly since the trial was a foregone conclusion, that she was going to be found guilty,” added Ms Beety, author of Manifesting Justice: Wrongly Convicted Women Reclaim Their Rights.

She said: “Over 99 per cent of people who go to trial in Russia are found guilty. So facing those odds, it’s in her best interest to be able to gain whatever leniency she can.”

What do Griner’s lawyers say?

“Today BG pleaded guilty. It was her decision informed by discussion with her legal defence team in Russia,” said her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina from Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Alexander Boykov from Moscow Legal Centre.

“Brittney sets an example of being brave. She decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people.”

They added: “Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defence hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence.”

What does her family say?

Ms Griner’s wife, Cherrele Griner, spoke this week with Joe Biden, after her fans said the president was not doing enough.

“This morning I received a call from President Biden and Vice President Harris. I am grateful to the both of them for the time they spent with me and for the commitment they expressed to getting BG home,” she wrote on Instagram.

“While I will remain concerned and outspoken until she is back home, I am hopeful in knowing that the pPresident read my wife’s letter and took the time to respond. I know BG will be able to find comfort in knowing she has not been forgotten.”

What does the US government say about the matter?

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said Washington would continue to work for the release of Ms Griner, as well as other Americans held by Moscow, including former Marine Paul Whelan.

“We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” he tweeted.

What does Russia say?

“It is clear that we have not completed the necessary judicial procedures,” deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian news agencies on Thursday. “Until this happens, there are no nominal, formal or procedural grounds for any further steps.”

Mr Ryabkov also rejected the US description of Ms Griner as “wrongfully detained” and warned that “attempts by the American side to make noise in public….don’t help the practical settlement of issues”.

What about a prisoner exchange?

Russian media has speculated there could be deal that sees the exchange of Ms Griner, and Mr Whelan, for arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death”.

Bout was convicted in a US court in 2011 and is currently serving 25 years, after he was found guilty of conspiracy to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.

In April, Washington and Moscow surprised observers with a prisoner swap.

American Trevor Reed, a US citizen and former Marine who had been detained in Russia since 2019, after allegedly punching a Russian police officer while drunk, was released in exchange for the return to Russia of Konstantin Yaroshenko.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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