Hmmm. Is this a surrender or step one of a deal? Brittany Griner has conceded her guilt in bringing contraband into Russia after five months of incarceration, which may either simplify or complicate efforts to get the WNBA star back to the US:
American basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Moscow court Thursday, her lawyers said, as her family and friends stepped up their calls for the U.S. government to do more to free her.
Griner, 31, could face up to 10 years in prison on drug smuggling charges under Russian law. She was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner’s lawyer, Alexander Boikov, said after the hearing that the basketball star admitted that the vape canisters were hers, but she brought them to Russia unintentionally.
Her other lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, said they hope for the leniency of the court. Griner’s next hearing will take place next Thursday.
At first blush, this looks like an attempt by Griner and her team to throw herself on the mercy of the court. Griner’s plea included a statement in which she admitted fault but denied any intent to break Russian drug laws:
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Ms. Griner said in English, which was then translated into Russian, Reuters reported.
There are signals that this might be an expeditious way to get Griner out rather than just a blind hope for mercy. Russia’s deputy foreign minister told reporters this morning that publicity coming out of the US had been both unhelpful and premature. The proper sequence, Sergei Ryabkov argued, would have the court finish a trial and then begin negotiations. Pressuring officials before a trial offends the idea of the rule of law under Vladimir Putin.
Yeah, yeah, I know, but now the form has been observed:
Mr. Ryabkov indicated that Moscow would be prepared to negotiate her fate, but only after the court reached a verdict on the drug charges that were brought against her. She has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17, accused by the Russian authorities of having a vape cartridge with hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.
“We have a long-established form of discussing these matters,” Mr. Ryabkov told reporters on Thursday in Moscow, according to the Interfax news agency. “The American side’s attempts to foment hype and make noise in the public environment are understandable, but they don’t help to practically resolve issues.”
Presumably, Ryabkov will entertain offers from the State Department after sentencing a week from today. That may be when Griner hopes the US will negotiate some sort of trade for her release, in a potential prisoner swap that would echo the practices of the Cold War. Rumors of a release for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout have been running rampant for the last six weeks, at least. A similar swap got Trevor Reed out of Russia in April, after all, which didn’t apparently require any concessions on the Ukraine war from the Biden administration.
We can expect that Joe Biden and his team will be highly motivated to make that work. How motivated? Karen Townsend has an upcoming post detailing the pressure on Biden already. Expect it to escalate significantly over the next week preceding Griner’s sentencing, and be sure to read Karen’s analysis.