August 12, 2022

A Russian court on Thursday sentenced American basketball star Britney Grenier to nine years in prison in a criminal colony after being found guilty of drug charges, a harsh sentence that entangles her fate with the geopolitical standoff over the war in Ukraine and adds to already intense pressures. President Biden has to win her release.

The US government claims that it is among the many Americans who have been “unjustly detained” by Russia, and is using them as a bargaining chip in the increasingly hostile relationship between Moscow and Washington. The Biden administration has offered a prisoner swap that would include Ms Greiner, but Russian officials said it was too early to discuss the deal while her case was being considered.

Now that the trial is over, Mr. Biden faces a difficult choice between standing firm on his proposal to trade in favor of Mrs. Greiner and another American, Paul N. Whelan, or somehow sweeten the show, with either position likely to provoke domestic criticism.

In the meantime, the Kremlin can use it as leverage, without any incentive to resolve issues quickly. Its supporters, voicing their dread of governance and governance, are demanding something from the president, while the administration is wary of giving in to Russian tactics, which it has described as blackmail.

“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and seek every avenue possible to bring Britney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” Biden said in a statement after the ruling.

Ms Greiner, 31, one of the biggest stars of her world sport, sat expressionless, his eyes bruised, leaning her tall frame toward the bars of the defendant’s box in a cramped courtroom outside Moscow to hear the words of the judge, Anna S. Sotnikova, quietly translated for her. She had already pleaded guilty and guilty almost certainly in the Russian courts, so the verdict was an imposed consequence; The real question was about the ruling.

The answer was devastating. The sentence was nearing a 10-year maximum sentence for her conviction of trying to smuggle drugs into the country, based on two vape cartridges containing cannabis oil that were found in Ms Griner’s luggage upon her arrival in February, a week before the arrival of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, sent his troops pouring across the border into Ukraine.

She and her legal team had hoped for a more lenient sentence based on her guilty plea, her statement that she had not intended to transport the cartridges to Russia and her testimony that she had used the substance legally in the United States for pain management.

“I made an honest mistake, and I hope your judgment doesn’t end my life here,” she said before pronouncing the verdict.

She told the court that while she took responsibility for her actions, “I had no intention of violating Russian law.” She said that after recovering from the bout of Covid, she had hastily packed up to join the Russian team she’s playing in the WNBA out-of-season, accidentally leaving cartridges in her luggage.

“I know everyone keeps talking about the political pawn and politics, but I hope it’s out of the courtroom,” she added.

Ms Greiner’s defense team called the ruling “completely unreasonable” and said the court had “totally ignored all defense evidence and, most importantly, the guilty plea”, and vowed to appeal. Elizabeth Rudd, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Moscow, attended the court hearing and described the outcome as a “miscarriage of justice.”

Russian officials insisted that Ms. Greiner’s case was simply that the justice system was on track, without any political overtones – a claim that American counterparts and many Western analysts dismissed as absurd.

William Pomeranz, a Russian expert and acting director of the Kennan Institute, a Washington research group, noted that Ms. Greiner was sentenced not to prison but to a criminal colony, which means a more remote location – there are many in Siberia – and harsher conditions.

“You will probably go to a penal colony in the middle of Russia where you will not know anyone,” he added. They will not be able to come and visit. Punitive colonies can be severe at times. It would be a massive test for her mental state if she ended up going to a penal colony.”

He said the United States had few options. “It will just depend on the Russians and how quickly they want to make a deal.”

Our fellow basketball players, both male and female, and basketball executives used social media to express their support for Ms. Greiner and grief over the referee. Ms. Greiner’s team, Phoenix Mercury, said in a statement: “We continue to mourn her, as we have done every day for nearly six months. We remain grateful and confident that the public servants are working every day to bring her back to her family and us.”

With Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the indiscriminate devastation it caused, relations between Washington and Moscow are even more clashing and bitter than they have been in decades. The United States mobilized the West to send weapons and other aid to Ukraine, and to punish Moscow with economic sanctions, looking for opportunities to increase pressure.

The two sides have held prisoner exchanges before, most recently in April, when Russia released Trevor R. Read, an American held on what his family described as a mock assault charge, in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted in the United States of smuggling cocaine. shipment. But the proposed swaps rarely come amid such tension, or involve anyone as prominent as Ms. Greiner.

In a sign of the scale of the stakes for Washington, Ms. Greiner’s fate was among the topics discussed last Friday by Secretary of State Anthony J. .

The Biden administration has offered to trade Ms. Greiner and Mr. Whelan for Victor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for his 2011 conviction for conspiring to sell weapons to people posing as terrorists intent on killing Americans. Mr Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018, was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

The White House said on Monday that Russia had made a counteroffer in unspecified “bad faith,” which US officials said they did not consider to be serious.

“I don’t think it would be beneficial for Britney or for Paul to talk more publicly about our place in the talks and what the president might or might not be willing to do,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Thursday.

“Talks are underway at various levels,” he added.

If Mr Biden sticks to his initial offer, he could face accusations of not doing enough.

Greiner’s wife, Cheryl Greiner, and other supporters launched an effective public campaign to pressure the president to win her release. Supporters worry about her treatment in a country where vitriol for America and gays is rooted in popular opinion and official propaganda. Images of a grimly-faced Ms. Greiner being led, handcuffed, in and out of court, towering above her armed guards, became popular in the US and international media.

The administration could make a more attractive offer, but US officials are already concerned that the prisoner deals might encourage hostile foreign governments to detain Americans on trumped-up charges in exchange for concessions such as liberation. Some Republicans have already complained that Mr. Biden’s current offer creates such an incentive.

Ms. Greiner, who is 6 feet 9 feet tall, won an collegiate national championship with Baylor in 2012, a WNBA championship with Mercury in 2014, Olympic gold medals with Team USA at the 2016 and 2020 Games, and four Euroleague championships with the national team. United State. Russian team UMMC Yekaterinburg. Like many players in the WNBA, where salaries are much lower than in the NBA, Ms. Griner – who also played one season with a professional team in China – has played abroad to increase her income.

Contribute to reporting Michael CrowleyAnd the Jonathan Abrams And the Tania Ganguly.

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