Olympian and WNBA champion Brittney Griner was recently found guilty on drug charges and sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony. During the trial, Griner pleaded guilty and her defense centered on the fact that she is a registered medical marijuana patient in her home state, who packed in a hurry and accidentally brought the cannabis oil to Russia.
The two countries are now considering a prisoner swap – Brittney Griner and ex-marine Paul Whelan for arms dealer Viktor Bout.
While many people in the U.S. closely followed all the news on Griner since her detention in Russia, and most of them were actually expecting her to be found guilty, they were not, however, expecting such a harsh sentence.
“One of her lawyers in Russia mentioned that her sentence of nine years is too much for a typical case like this,” Arash Hashemi, a lawyer whose expertise includes civil rights cases, told ESSENCE. “She said in a case like this; it's either four and a half to six years typically...I believe her sentence does not meet the crime.”
Adding to this that Griner’s trial was delayed several times because of the country’s invasion of Ukraine, it can be assumed that the case holds more of a political nature than of crime.
“I think we know at this point that it’s way more than just the law that’s being broken, it’s definitely political,” Jamie Wright, attorney and principal at J.Wright Law Group, P.C said.
Furthermore, Hashemi highlighted how keeping Griner in custody for almost five months before giving her a trial is radical.
"She was arrested at the airport and she was detained and held in custody until her next court date. That would never happen in the U.S.,” Hashemi said. “If you are in custody in the U.S. and you cannot afford bail or have a no bail hold you have to be brought in front of a judge within 48 hours.”
According to him, Griner has been treated like a felon and not as a person who committed a misdemeanor.
"I think Moscow is going to take its time by holding out on the negotiations to get their best option. I don't think this is going to be an easy diplomacy option for us. I think it's going to be difficult," Wright said.
Even if Griner’s detention was not part of a political strategy in the first place, it has certainly evolved into it.
Griner’s case presents a perfect example of how all large political forces use whoever they prefer as political pawns like everything is a big chess play for them. Unfortunately, the figures are real people, who cannot do anything about it. All countries are doing this. It has been done for centuries.
Sophie’s Choice For Biden
For Russia, Griner is an extremely powerful bargaining chip. The Biden administration is now facing an extremely difficult challenge. If it agrees to the prisoner swap it faces a lot of criticism for sending a message of giving special treatment to celebrities considering there are many people imprisoned in the U.S. as well, over similar marijuana possession charges. Tesla TSLA CEO Elon Musk, Democratic representative for Hawaii, and former presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard already pointed out that issue.
Another problem that could possibly arise if Biden agrees to the prisoner exchange is establishing a model for future cases like this. And we might see Russia, and some other countries, having more Americans held hostage and used for bargaining.
“It will create a precedent for other countries and especially Russia to take our citizens hostage and exchange them for either their own citizens that are in prison here, money, or whatever they want,” Hashemi said.
One can argue that prisoner swap is not a new thing, and countries have been doing it for a long time. But, if we take a look at the prisoners’ charges it becomes obvious that the barraging deal gives in more on one side. While Griner is a professional athlete who used medical marijuana as a patient and had no intention of drug smuggling, Victor Bout is an arms dealer, convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and officials, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
That’s why this prisoner swap could end up being considered a precedent.
On the other hand, for the U.S. and all Americans, Griner is a person, and charges don't seem to matter in this deal. If the Biden administration rejects the exchange it would come under a lot of criticism, and it would definitely lose political points. The pressure on the Biden administration came from politicians as well, in addition to Griner’s family and friends, colleges, sports organizations, fans and celebrities. A bipartisan resolution calling for her immediate release was introduced in the United States Senate in July.
Perhaps, Biden is not facing Sophie’s choice at all, but more of Hudson’s choice (no real choice at all), as people are unlikely to stop fighting for Griner’s release. Wright argues that this is actually the only way to see the player come home safely. His solution is “droves of people going to Washington D.C. to push the senators.”
Disclaimer: The preceding article represents de views of the author but not necessarily the opinion of Benzinga.
Photo: Benzinga Edit; Source: Courtesy of David Lienemann by Commons
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