Video from an NPR reporter showed the two-time Olympic champion enter and Leave Court, apparently without comment, in official custody. She had previously been ordered to remain in custody until July 2.
Brian Whitmore, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and an assistant professor at the University of Texas Arlington, described Griner’s detention as “a hostage situation” and her trial as an exercise in “political theater” to pressure the US government exercise in a prisoner exchange.
“They want to trade them,” Whitmore said, “and they’re going to drag that out until they get something they want.”
Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.) said Griner is “a political prisoner by intent and purpose” and that her fans should be prepared for a “mock trial” that will result in a guilty verdict and jail time.
“None of this will mean anything, and I will continue to work closely with the Biden administration to bring them and all Americans detained abroad safely,” Allred said in a statement to The Washington Post.
Griner’s court appearance on Monday and the upcoming trial, Allred added, “are all theatre, to make Russia appear to have a fair legal system and that her incarceration is anything but a deeply cynical, geopolitical power play with a prominent Americans to put more pressure on the negotiations for their release.”
The 31-year-old Griner, who plays for Phoenix Mercury, was stopped at Sheremetyevo International Airport on February 17 shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and accused of carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil, which is illegal in Russia. Like many WNBA players who go abroad during the offseason, Griner plays in Russia to supplement her income.
The State Department has classified Griner as “wrongly imprisoned,” a shift in strategy that indicated it would no longer wait for the case to move through the Russian legal system and would take more aggressive steps to negotiate her release. If convicted of large-scale drug trafficking, she faces ten years in prison. According to the Associated Press, less than 1 percent of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and acquittals can be overturned.
After Monday’s hearing, a State Department spokesman said, “Our priority is no higher than the safety of U.S. citizens abroad. The State Department has found that the Russian Federation wrongfully detained US citizen Brittney Griner. The US government will continue to provide appropriate support to Ms. Griner and her family. We will continue to press for their release.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, told the AP last week that she had “zero confidence” in the government’s handling of the situation after a scheduled phone call between the two didn’t happen because of a “logistical error” at the State Department’s US embassy in Russia .
US officials meet with team of WNBA star Brittney Griner who is jailed in Russia
“I find it unacceptable and I have no faith in our government right now,” Cherelle Griner said. “If I can’t trust you to take an after-hours Saturday call, how can I trust you to actually negotiate on my wife’s behalf to get home?” Because that’s a much bigger request than getting a Saturday call.”
As Griner’s case has garnered increasing attention, supporters have called for a prisoner swap similar to that which saw Navy veteran Trevor Reed exchanged for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy in April.
Russian news media have speculated that she could be swapped out for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Dealer of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill US citizens and supporting a terrorist organization. However, the disparity in their crimes makes this unlikely to be acceptable to the US government.
And 40 minutes later the preliminary hearing is over. No comment from Griner. Her Russian lawyer says the judge extended her detention for the duration of her trial. No date set. Curiously, no representative from the US Embassy is present at the hearing. #BrittneyGriner pic.twitter.com/FSYprXjSgs
— Charles Maynes (@cwmiii3) June 27, 2022
“They want Viktor Bout back. He is associated with the highest levels of the Russian government. This is an attempt to get him back,” Whitmore said. “That is clear [Biden] The administration is increasingly under pressure from society, from Griner’s friends and family. That’s not an enviable position here, because it’s clear what the Russian government wants. It’s like negotiating with a terrorist.”