Brittney Griner trial spurs families of wrongfully detained Americans to seek stronger response from the Biden administration

The basketball star faces charges that could keep her in a Russian prison for up to 10 years, if she’s convicted.

By Jill AmentJuly 21, 2022 1:49 pm,

As the imprisonment of Texan and women’s basketball star Brittney Griner continues in Russia. families of Americans considered wrongfully detained by other countries are pressuring the Biden administration to take stronger action. Earlier this week, President Joe Biden signed an executive order aimed at deterring and punishing countries deemed to be wrongfully imprisoning Americans. Meanwhile, Griner’s trial in Russia continues with her next court date set for the end of the month.

Griner, who pleaded guilty to drug charges, has so far had two court appearances while detained in Russia. Late last week, character witnesses who play basketball with Griner on her Russian club team spoke highly of her. The next day, written evidence provided by the U.S., and by Griner’s American doctor showed that Griner had a prescription for marijuana use. The WNBA star was taken into Russian custody in February after vape cartridges filled with cannabis oil were found in her luggage.

Jim Heintz is an Associated Press reporter based in Moscow. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What have been the most recent developments in Griner’s court case? She’s pleaded guilty to drug possession charges. And we should probably remind listeners, she was arrested after cannabis oil vape cartridges were discovered in her luggage back in February.

Jim Heintz: There were two court sessions for her last week, both oriented toward character witnesses in the first session. She got some character witnesses from the Russian team that she played for in Yekaterinburg, the club director and the team captain. Both spoke highly of her. That was a closed court session. So we don’t know specifically what was said, but this is what the witnesses told us afterwards. The next day, there was a lot of written evidence presented from her U.S. teammates and from a doctor who said that he had given Brittney Griner permission and advice to use medical marijuana for pain treatment. The next session, which comes up on July 26, Tuesday. It’s not clear what’s going to happen. Her lawyers have said she may testify. She may not.

How is she doing by all appearances?

Well, by appearances she appears to be doing reasonably well. I have seen her only when she’s being led through the hallways, into the courtroom. And she looks very stone faced, not necessarily glum. But certainly she’s upset by the process and by having reporters and photographers gawking at her. She appears superficially to be doing okay. And the U.S. embassy representatives who have attended the trial say that she’s doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances.

How serious a charge is this? Is cannabis possession generally serious in Russia?

Russia basically is a zero-tolerance country on any sort of drug use. And the charges that Griner is facing and which she is acknowledged that can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

You mentioned that Griner had showed the court she had a medical marijuana prescription from her doctor in the U.S. Is the court likely to be swayed or what is your impression?

My guess is that the court would not necessarily be strongly swayed by that, because medical marijuana is a phenomenon that basically doesn’t exist in Russia. There are only very, very limited uses of cannabis for any medical purpose, and that’s usually reprocessed cannabis. I think what Griner is apparently going for is to appeal to the court on a personal basis as much as possible. First of all, by acknowledging her guilt. She is potentially currying favor with the court by not making them go through a long process of disputing evidence and also acknowledging that she had these vague canisters is a way of showing that she’s interested in cooperating, that she’s not going to draw the process out.

We mentioned the action taken by the Biden administration earlier this week against countries wrongfully detaining Americans, at least by the standards of the State Department. There are many people who are considered to be wrongfully detained in many countries. But I’m curious how that declaration from the president might affect Griner and her possible release?

That’s difficult to say. As I mentioned, the wrongfully detained characterization has offended Russian officials. On the other hand, there are some Russian prisoners in the U.S., particularly Victor Boot, the arms trader whose release Russia wants very strongly to secure. So it’s a question of whether they’re going to be offended, but whether taking offense at the rhetoric would deter them from pursuing a larger goal.

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