Brittney Griner Should Never Have Been in Russia
The basketball star has been detained on drug charges by the Putin regime since February 17, 2022--but why was she there to begin with?
Now is the time to pressure Washington for Brittney Griner’s release. Do you know someone who might be interested in calling their congressperson or senator on Griner’s behalf? If so, please:
As expected, yesterday, following a sham trial, WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner was found guilty of transporting drugs and sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony.
Griner has been in Russian custody since February 17, when she passed through airport customs on her way to play for BC Ural Yekaterinburg. That week, United States-Russian relations were at their lowest point since the Cold War. A week later, relations deteriorated further when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a destructive, unprovoked war against Ukraine that continues today. Arrested for two vape cartridges that contained hashish oil, Griner became part of that crisis and is essentially being held as a high-profile hostage. The United States has classified Griner as “wrongfully detained.”
There has been a great deal of coverage about this situation, but there has been no doubt that Griner would be convicted at trial: the question was only how severe the penalty would be. In the Russian Federation, 6 grams or less can be punished with as little as a fine: the two cartridges in Griner’s luggage contained .702 grams of hashish oil. So the fact that she has received a harsh sentence in what remains of the Soviet Gulag speaks volumes about why Griner was arrested in the first place.
The fact that Griner pled guilty means nothing: should you ever find yourself in a cage in a Russian Federation court, it is the wise thing to do. There is no fact-finding, no real defense, and a not-guilty plea leads to even harsher sentencing, as it is understood as refusing the authority of the state. Like the 18th-century interrogations and public executions Michel Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (1975), being taken to trial in Russia presumes irrefutable guilt.
There are two points to a trial in Russia, and neither of them is learning the truth, which is not generally valued by the Putin regime anyway. The first is to lay out the evidence of guilt so that the court can decide upon punishment, and the second—which Foucault would recognize—is to mount a public spectacle in which the Russian, and before that the Soviet, state displays its power over all bodies in its purview. In this case, the intended audience was the United States.
Griner has not yet been transported to the penal colony: currently, she still lives in the Soviet-era women’s prison outside Moscow, where she has been incarcerated since her arrest. Griner’s Russian lawyer is appealing the sentence, and discussions have officially begun between the United States and Russia for a prisoner exchange (the diplomatic channel has been active for months.) These discussions could return her and Paul Whelen (a Marine arrested on spying charges in 2018), to the United States, probably in exchange for a vicious international arms dealer who is a Putin crony.
So the question I want to ask today is: why was Brittney Griner’s body crossing a border into Russia only days before a war that would put the United States and Putin’s criminal regime at loggerheads? What should have been known or done—and by whom?
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