A basketball player in the cœur of a Russian-American prisoner exchange. American Brittney Griner, 2.06 meters, star of the WNBA, the North American women’s basketball league, was sentenced Thursday, August 4, to nine years in prison by a Russian court for possession and trafficking of drugs.
Arrested in February in Moscow for possession of cannabis, she finds herself today, despite herself, plunged into a geopolitical crisis between Washington and Moscow, in the midst of a conflict in Ukraine. Franceinfo summarizes the story of this sportswoman, which has become a diplomatic issue for the United States, in six acts.
1On February 17, Brittney Griner is arrested in Moscow
The 31-year-old athlete, considered one of the best basketball players in the world, was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport with cannabis-based vaping liquid, days before the Russian offensive in Ukraine .
The inspection of the hand luggage brought by Brittney Griner, who arrived on a flight from New York, then makes it possible to “confirm the presence of vapers (and) a liquid with a particular smell“specifies the federal customs service of Russia in a press release.
– Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) March 5, 2022
The star of the Phoenix Mercury (club from the city of Phoenix, Arizona) had come to Russia to play during the American offseason, a common practice for WNBA basketball players, who often earn a better living abroad than in the UNITED STATES.
2On March 5, the detention of the basketball star is revealed to the general public
Fifteen days after the arrest of Brittney Griner, it is publicly revealed. Meanwhile, Russian forces have invaded Ukraine and news of his arrest is met with what seems to be a deliberate silence. His Phoenix Mercury club simply reacts, in a very short press release, to be “informed” the situation of the player. His wife, Cherelle Griner, calls for “respect [leur] private life” while she “work to bring in [s]a safe wife”.
Same strategy in Washington, where it is feared that the player will become a tool of pressure in the Ukrainian conflict. “For detained Americans, we generally don’t give details because it doesn’t move things forward to get them home”comments a spokesperson for the White House, Jen Psaki, to justify this silence.
3On July 19, Joe Biden adopts more sanctions to release American detainees
Faced with the media coverage of the case, thePresident Joe Biden is paving the way for sanctions against governments that unjustly imprison Americans and ordering more detailed travel warnings.
NBA superstar LeBron James had felt, a few days earlier, that the American authorities were not making enough efforts to repatriate Brittney Griner. “How can she feel supported by the United States?”the player, four-time NBA champion and four-time best player in the league, asked himself in his show “The Shop: Uninterrupted” on YouTube. “In his case, I’d be like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?'”
Joe Biden then signs an executive order authorizing government agencies to impose financial sanctions or travel bans on foreign officials or non-state actors implicated in unjust detentions of Americans.
4On August 4, Brittney Griner is sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia
During her trial at the end of July, Brittney Griner claimed to have inadvertently brought medicinal cannabis to Russia but never intended to smuggle drugs. According to her, the cannabis was prescribed to her by a doctor. “I did not have the idea, nor did I plan to introduce banned substances into Russia”then declares the double Olympic champion, from the cage reserved for the accused, according to an AFP journalist on the spot.
She explains that she used medicinal cannabis legally in the United States, on prescription and only on her days off, out of competition, to relieve multiple “pains” related to his intensive practice of basketball. “It’s because of all the injuries I had during this long period of basketball. It goes from my back to the cartilage. And I was in a wheelchair for four months, I had sprained my ankle”she details.
The Russian Prosecutor’s Office requires nine and a half prison sentences against the women’s basketball star, who asks the court to “not end your life”. She asserts: “I made an honest mistake and hope the judgment doesn’t end my life here.”
At the end of the trial, the court in Khimki, near Moscow, finally finds the United States national team star guilty of drug possession and trafficking and sentences her “to nine years of detention in a penal colony“, according to the statements of judge Anna Sotnikova, reported by AFP.
5On August 4, the United States denounces “abusive detention”
This heavy condemnation arouses a wave of indignation, especially in the world of sport. Following the judgment, thehe lawyers for the international basketball star immediately announce that she will appeal her conviction.
“This is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release her immediately so that she can be reunited with her wife, relatives and teammates.“urges US President Joe Biden in a statement (in English) after announcement of judgment.
White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre also denounces the “wrongful detention“ of the double Olympic champion. “Today’s verdict reminds us of what the world already knew: Russia wrongfully detains Brittney. She should never even have had to stand trial.” she laments. On the side of the Republican Party, the very conservative Ted Cruz, senator from Texas, also speaks of “arbitrary detention“.
On the sporting side, the North American Women’s Basketball League (WNBA) deplores a conviction “unjustified and unfortunate. The verdict … was predictable and Brittney remains wrongfully detained”regrets the instance in a joint statement with the NBA.
6On August 5, Russia says it is “ready” to discuss a prisoner exchange
The day after the basketball player’s conviction, Russia said on Friday it was “ready” to discuss a prisoner exchange with the United States. The American administration claimed for several days to have submitted to the Kremlin a proposal to obtain the release of the player, but Russian diplomacy repeated that an exchange could only be mentioned once the judgment had fallen.
“We are ready to discuss this subject, but only within the framework of the channel [diplomatique] which was agreed upon by Presidents Putin and Biden”assured Friday the head of Russian diplomacy Sergei Lavrov, during a trip to Cambodia. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday that the United States would “Continue” to discuss with Russia about a prisoner exchange involving the basketball player.
Washington said at the end of July that it had made an offer “consequent” and “serious” to secure the return of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, an American who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia for “espionage”. According to American media, as the New York Times (in English), the exchange in question would concern the basketball player and Paul Whelan against Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “merchant of death”a Russian arms dealer who is serving 25 years in prison in the United States.