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Brittney Griner: What could be the next step in her case

The country’s strict drug laws also offer an indication of what could be next for Griner, experts say.

Some pundits who spoke to CNN were quick to link Griner’s arrest to the larger geopolitical situation, and warned that it would likely be used as bargaining chips in the days to come. tensions around the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s Federal Customs Agency said a criminal case was pending, and state media said Griner was charged with drug smuggling after cannabis oil was allegedly found in her suitcase in a Moscow airport.

These are serious charges, given the stringency of Russia’s drug laws, says Penn State Dickinson Law professor William E. Butler.

“Russia has, and has had for many decades, zero tolerance towards narcotics, so this is a serious offence,” he said.

The Griner crime is charged with a possible sentence of 5 to 10 years in prison, Butler says, in addition to the possible imposition of a fine.

False accusations are a possibility

But it’s also important to consider another possibility, says Peter Maggs, a University of Illinois law professor and expert on Russia’s civil code.

“There have been a lot of allegations of planting substances on people, especially from human rights defenders,” he says.

And a February State Department warning urged Americans to avoid traveling to Russia, noting the risk of arrest.

“Russian security services have arrested US citizens on false charges, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence,” the warning reads.

Prison conditions have been criticized

Authorities did not say where Griner was being held and her family remained silent on the details of the case, but her arrest drew attention to two other Americans being held in Russia, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed.

Both men and their families have denied the charges against them and criticized their treatment while in custody.

Whelan, a former US Marine, was detained in a Moscow hotel in 2018 and arrested on espionage charges, which he has always denied. He was found guilty and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in in a trial widely denounced as unfair by US authorities. During a call with CNN in June, Whelan described the grim conditions at the remote labor camp where he spends his days working in a garment factory that he called a “sweatshop,” and said: “Getting medical care here is very difficult.”

Reed, a former US Marine detained in Russia since 2019, was sentenced to nine years in prison in July 2020 for endangering “the life and health” of Russian police officers after a night of drinking, according to the news agency. official TASS. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan called the trial a “theatre of the absurd” following Reed’s 2020 conviction.

Trevor Reed stands inside a cage of defendants during a 2020 court hearing in Moscow.
In recent calls to his parents from the Russian prison where he is being held, Reed said he had coughed up blood, had intermittent fevers and had chest pains, according to his father – and the family are concerned that he has tuberculosis. In a statement Thursday, Reed’s parents said they feared he would be sent to solitary confinement rather than for medical treatment.

“It’s hard to explain how panicked we are after hearing his voice today,” his parents said.

CNN has contacted the Russian Federal Prison Service for comment.

Nick Daniloff, an American journalist detained in the USSR in 1986, told CNN he had questions about where Griner was being held.

“The Russians seized her and she’s incommunicado. … It’s very possible that she’s being held in the kind of prison I was taken to – a solitary confinement prison,” Daniloff says.

Daniloff, who was imprisoned for weeks in solitary confinement while authorities negotiated his release, says he believes his roommate in prison was instructed to inform authorities of his behavior — and Griner could find themselves in a similar situation.

American journalist Nicholas Daniloff holds up a T-shirt after his release from custody in Russia in 1986.

Griner should have access to a lawyer and consular officials

Russian law guarantees Griner access to a lawyer and consular officials, Butler says.

“She is under what I understand to be preventive detention. (…) She will have had the right to a lawyer. She will have had the right to contact the embassy, ​​the American consulate, she will have had the right to be visited,” he said.

But a U.S. lawmaker told CNN Thursday that consular officials were unable to meet with Griner.

“The Embassy requested consular access to her…and it has been denied to her for three weeks. She has been in contact with her Russian lawyer, and her Russian lawyer has been in contact with her agent and her family back home So we know she’s fine,” U.S. Representative Colin Allred, a Democrat from Texas, told CNN’s “Don Lemon Tonight.”

“We just know that she has been detained for three weeks without the government having access to her, which is really unusual and extremely concerning,” Allred said.

CNN contacted Russian officials regarding Griner’s consular access, but did not hear back.

The State Department declined to provide details of the case, citing confidentiality considerations.

“We are aware of this matter and closely engaged in it,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement Thursday.

War “makes everything more complex”

One thing is clear: the timing is terrible: in the days after Griner was detained in February, Russia invaded Ukraine and tensions between Russia and the United States escalated.

“It’s hard to imagine a tougher trading environment than this,” says Philip Mudd, a CNN counterterrorism analyst who worked for the CIA. “We have the difficulty of diplomatic negotiations with the Russians, who we obviously don’t trust, in addition to the fact that we are involved in the war and the Russians don’t trust us. I don’t see how that could be harder than that right now.

The war in Ukraine “makes everything more complex” and will make the Russian authorities even more inclined to manipulate the situation, said Nikolay Marinov, professor of political science at the University of Houston.

“They will be less open and less cooperative, and it may be a while before they release any more official information,” he says.

A trial could be quick, but the appeals could be long

Authorities have not said when or if a trial could take place in the Griner case. Legal experts told CNN that a trial could take place quickly, but appeals can be lengthy.

“Usually when the facts are relatively straightforward, you would expect things to move very quickly. They have the witnesses from the airport experts, they have the physical evidence, they have the lab report,” he said. Maggs. “It shouldn’t take long. But calls can take a long time.”

US citizen Paul Whelan attends a 1020 sentencing hearing at Moscow City Court.
He refers to the recent case of American businessman Michael Calvey, which ended more than two years after his first arrest. Calvey was convicted of embezzlement, a charge he denied.

There may be an “exit ramp”

Despite the serious charges Griner faces, there could still be an “exit ramp,” Butler says: Authorities could decide to charge Griner with possession rather than smuggling.

“if they were to decide that she made a mistake, she went through the green line instead of the red line (at the airport), she did not declare it, they could treat it as an administrative violation instead of a criminal offence,” he said. “If they did that, they wouldn’t charge her with smuggling, they would charge her with… subject to possession. If that were the case, she would be liable a fine and possibly deportation.”

Griner, a two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist and WNBA star, plays for Russian club UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason.

But Butler points out that there’s still a lot we don’t know about Griner’s case.

“It’s very difficult to judge from the outside. … In this case, we know surprisingly little of the real facts and what has happened since the detention,” Butler said.

An exchange of prisoners may be possible

At times in the past, when Americans have been detained in Russia and other countries, their release has been negotiated through a prisoner exchange.

“In my case, the FBI had arrested a Soviet in New York for spying, and then the Russians arrested me. I was nearing the end of my assignment in Moscow (working for US News and World Report), and.. .a negotiation eventually took place involving my release, involving a solution for the guy who was arrested in New York, and there were other things that came into play as well,” Daniloff recalled.

At the time, Daniloff credited President Reagan with pushing for his release.

“It was a very complex situation, and if it hadn’t been for President Reagan’s very deep and personal interest in my case, it probably would have been several years before I could stand before you and say: ‘Thank you, Mr. President,’ Daniloff said at a news conference alongside Reagan after his release in 1986.

American journalist Nicholas Daniloff stands with President Ronald Reagan after his release from custody in Russia.

Could a similar deal be struck for Reed, Whelan and Griner?

“The question is whether we have enough to trade for three Americans. But a deal is a deal, and Putin will be willing to make a deal,” Mudd says. “If we have Russians he wants, I don’t. See why it’s worth avoiding a negotiation just because we’re at war.”

Marinov says Griner’s case is only a small piece in the big geopolitical picture, but there is no doubt, he says, that Russian officials plan to use it to their advantage.

“I’m sure they have 10 plans at the moment of how they can exploit this, and what kind of spin they can put into it – what maximum benefit they can get out of it,” he says.

Cases like Griner’s have been resolved through negotiation in the past, he says.

But how long that might take in that case, he says, is yet another unanswered question.

CNN’s Rosa Flores, Brian Todd, Lucy Kafanov, Holly Yan, Travis Caldwell and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.


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