Houston native and WNBA star Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia for nearly 10 months after being found guilty of drug smuggling and possession for bringing vape cartridges with small amounts of cannabis oil into the country. Griner had a legal prescription for the cannabis oil from a U.S. doctor to treat her chronic pain, but any amount of marijuana for any purpose is a serious crime in Russia.
The Phoenix Mercury center was sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison colony and missed the WNBA season and All-Star Game. Though U.S. officials have been optimistic Griner would be home via a prisoner swap, negotiations have been unsuccessful. And this week, Griner’s appeal to a court in Moscow was denied – meaning she will have to carry out her sentence.
Michael Voepel, a writer for ESPN focusing on women’s college basketball and the WNBA, spoke with the Texas Standard on this dire situation for Griner and her family.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: What does it mean now that Griner’s appeal has been denied?
Michael Voepel: You really have to look back to when we first found out back in March that Brittney had been detained, because at that point, most of the people who are experts on the Russian judicial system said that this was going to happen, it was going to be played out in this way, if you will. She really had no choice but to plead guilty. I think it’s very fair to say she’s a political prisoner at this point, as is Paul Whelan, who’s been detained in Russia for a couple of years now.
So, unfortunately, none of the things that have happened have been surprising, but they’ve been difficult, obviously, for Brittney Griner, her family, the WNBA, and I would say for the basketball world at large. She’s got a lot of friends in the NBA as well – a lot of people have been rooting for her. But at this point, their hands are tied. As you mentioned, this is going to come down to a potential prisoner swap, and that’s really the only way she’s going to be able to come home before that nine-year sentence.
Has her legal team run out of options? There’s no further avenue for appeal?
For the most part, that is true. She has a Russian legal team that has been serving her. They have really tried to do everything they can to keep the lines of communication open with her family, with the people closest to her. But she’s been basically alone. She hasn’t obviously been able to see her family since she was detained, so [her] lifeline has really been this team of lawyers that she has. They’ve done everything they can to keep up her spirits. Her birthday was October 18th, [her] 32nd birthday, and they spent time with her then. I think the concern really is, at this point, as you said, she’s been in prison a long time, and she doesn’t have any idea if she’s going to get out at any time soon.
Also, she’s been assigned to be sent to a Russian penal colony. She’s been in jail in Moscow, and that’s also a concern because that’s going to be a situation that’s going to be more dangerous for her and I think more physically hazardous for her.
Talking about the prison swap negotiations – this all began to unfold as Russia launched its war in Ukraine. When it comes to those negotiations, was Russia taking it seriously, or not so much, or is there any way of really knowing?
You know, obviously earlier this year, Trevor Reed was freed on a prisoner swap, and he had been in Russia for almost three years, similarly on charges that seemed very trumped up. That prisoner swap worked. But, you know, he was detained before the war. Brittney has been detained after the war. At this point, it’s very hard to say if they’re going to engage in a serious dialogue and especially if they’re going to do so before the November elections here in the United States. It’s doubtful. So far, everything we have heard has been that they have not engaged in good faith in negotiations for a prisoner swap.