The conviction and sentencing of the WNBA star and two-time Olympian Brittney Griner, wrongfully detained in Russia, leaves less “unknowns” for the ongoing diplomatic negotiations, a Northeastern expert says.
Still, these negotiations need to be handled delicately, considering the current state of the relationship between Russia and the United States, says Alexandra Meise, an associate teaching professor in the School of Law at Northeastern.
Griner, 31, the U.S. women’s basketball player and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was found guilty of possession and trafficking of controlled substances and sentenced to nine years in a general penal colony on Thursday in the Russian city of Khimki near Moscow.
“Having the verdict and sentence in this case means those previous ‘unknowns’ are now ‘knowns’ for purposes of the ongoing negotiations,” says Meise. “I do not think the sentence alone will cause the negotiations to drag out here.”
Griner was returning to Ekaterinburg, Russia, to play for the local women’s basketball team during the WNBA off-season, when she was detained at a Russian airport on Feb. 17 for possessing vape cartridges of hashish oil, an illegal substance in that country.
Testifying at the trial in July, Griner said that she packed for the trip in a hurry and didn’t realize that the medical marijuana prescribed by her doctor was in her luggage.
Her lawyers said they felt disappointed with the severe verdict and will be filing an appeal. Griner’s sentence was much stricter than the average, they said, while a third of people convicted in a similar crime in Russia get parole.
According to the Russian Criminal and Correctional Codes, a general penal colony is a correctional facility with dormitory-style living conditions for mainly first-time offenders convicted for serious crimes. Inmates have to work six days a week and are allowed six short and four long visits a year. They can spend about $148 on extra food items and essentials and receive six parcels and six printed matters a year.
In the beginning of May, the U.S. State Department designated Griner as an American citizen wrongfully detained by a foreign state. The State Department made Russia a “substantial offer” to free Griner and Paul Whelan, another American wrongfully detained in Russia since December 2018, according to White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
Presumably, the offer implies a prisoner swap. Although it is widely reported that the U.S. might be offering Russia Victor Bout, an arms dealer convicted in 2011 on charges that include conspiring to kill American citizens, Russian media have hinted at several other Russian citizens serving sentences in American prisons that could be of interest to the Russian government.
“Prisoner swaps often lead to people trying to make equations out of human life and that is inherently problematic—weighing value and then also weighing crimes,” Meise says. “One individual may have gone through a trial process that included due process and fair trial proceedings, and another person may not have had a fair trial. And yet you’re then having negotiations about what this means for an exchange.”
Meise says that prisoner swaps between the U.S. and a foreign state are a rare occurrence. Generally, the U.S. government tries to refrain from prisoner exchanges out of concern that they would encourage foreign regimes to engage in wrongful detainment of Americans in order to use them as leverage.
There are currently more than 60 U.S. citizens detained in foreign countries such as Iran, Venezuela and China, according to the Bring Our Families Home Campaign. More American hostages are currently held by foreign governments than by terrorist organizations.
Negotiating their release is usually a long, delicate and painstaking process, influenced by many factors, Meise says.
“The need for delicacy in these negotiations is really important when we consider the current state of a relationship between Russia and the United States and Russia and many of its neighbors,” Meise says. “And that is something that, while frustrating, is consistent with how these processes have proceeded in the past.”
Swaps can take months and sometimes years, like in the case of Trevor Reed, who spent multiple years in a prison in Russia until April 2022 when he was exchanged for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot convicted of conspiring to import cocaine into the U.S.
“We will not know what is negotiated until it is announced,” Meise says. “That is part of how these processes work. That’s how many diplomatic conversations happen—behind closed doors.”
Traditionally, the government keeps quiet as negotiations proceed, Meise says, and asks the same of the family of the detained person. Griner had been detained for a few weeks before the American public learned about it.
It usually takes some time for the State Department to decide whether an American citizen was wrongfully detained, Meise says, but as soon as this designation is made, the State Department and the president have the authority to start using diplomatic means to try and get the individual out of detention rather than wait for domestic criminal processes to take their course.
“This is not a common designation,” Meise says.
The Secretary of State reviews cases of U.S. nationals detained abroad to determine if there is credible information that they are being detained unlawfully or wrongfully, based on a list of eleven specific criteria.
“You don’t get to carry America’s laws with you. You can in fact, commit a crime and be tried, and prosecuted, and be sentenced in another country,” Meise says, recalling the case of American hikers who accidentally crossed the Iranian border in 2009 and were accused of spying.
But there might be other circumstances like the absence of fair trial or the evidence that the foreign government is using that particular arrest for other ends that are politically motivated, Meise says, that the U.S. citizen can still fall into the category of wrongfully detained.
The Office of Hostage Affairs of the State Department and the special envoy for hostage affairs are in charge of figuring out how to bring wrongfully detained persons home. Griner’s case has garnered a lot of media attention and motivated the first direct communication between the State Secretary Anthony Blinken and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov since Russia invaded Ukraine.
On July 19, Biden signed an executive order for bolstering efforts to bring hostages and wrongfully detained U.S. nationals home, which expands the tools available to U.S. officials to deter, disrupt and impose cost on those who take hostage U.S. nationals for financial, political or other gains.
Following Griner’s sentencing, President Joe Biden reiterated in a statement on Thursday America’s determination to bring Griner and Whelan back to the U.S.
“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” Biden said.