By pleading guilty to drug charges in a Russian court this week, American basketball star Brittney Griner has potentially accelerated the conclusion of her case, clearing the way for a settlement with the United States or, perhaps, a request for clemency.
With a guilty verdict an almost foregone conclusion in a Russian legal system that heavily favors prosecution, their best hope, experts say, is that the Biden administration secures their freedom by releasing a Russian held in the United States. The name of one prisoner in particular has surfaced: Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence.
But any such negotiations can take place only after the formalities of the Griner trial are over, Russian officials say.
“It is clear that we have not completed the necessary judicial procedures,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian news agencies on Thursday when asked about a possible exchange. “Until this happens, there are no nominal, formal or procedural reasons to take further action.”
Griner still faces the conviction and sentencing phases of his trial, and his next court date is scheduled for Thursday.
Griner is charged with illegal drug possession and smuggling a “significant amount.” Appearing before a judge outside the Russian capital on the second day of his trial, Griner said he had inadvertently brought a banned substance into the country because he had packed in a hurry. Russian authorities said they found vape cartridges containing 0.7 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage when Griner arrived in February to play basketball, and she has been in detention ever since, facing 10 years in prison in a penal colony.
Hours after his guilty plea on Thursday, it appeared his aides might be laying the groundwork for diplomatic efforts between US and Russian officials to take the lead.
“Given the nature of his case, the insignificant amount of substance and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to world and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the court will consider the statement as a mitigating factor and there will be no serious sentence,” his legal team said in a statement.
US officials insist they are doing everything they can to secure the release of Griner, 31, a seven-time WNBA All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first openly gay athlete signed to an endorsement deal. Nike. At Thursday’s hearing, US Embassy Moscow Charge d’Affaires Elizabeth Rood handed Griner a letter from President Joe Biden.
But with tensions between the United States and Russia at their worst in decades due to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden has few options to secure his freedom.
Ryabkov has hinted that Moscow was interested in negotiating over Griner’s fate, saying “a serious reading by the American side of the signals they received from Russia, from Moscow, through specialized channels” would help.
The Russian Interfax news agency reported that Ryabkov stressed on Friday that such negotiations must be held in private. “As for any exchange formula, our position is unwavering: this must be done in private, using the available channels,” he told reporters. “I am not sure that any additional activity, especially any activity done in public, can help to reach a correct and balanced compromise.”
Without a deal, Griner could face years in prison.
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