Will Brittney Griner Return to the U.S.?

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WNBA star Brittney Griner has now been imprisoned in Russia for six months, and she could face a much longer period there if action from the U.S. government can’t help free her. What is Griner’s current situation, and will government negotiations allow her to return to the U.S.? Read on below to find out.

What got Griner in trouble?

In February of this year, Brittney Griner was allegedly caught with four vape cartridges containing about a gram of hash oil, a form of cannabis. This oil is illegal in Russia, and Griner was arrested for violating Article 229.1 of the Criminal Code of Russia, which criminalizes drug trafficking and smuggling.

Griner was entering Russia through the Sheremetyevo International Airport to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian basketball team where she’s played in the off-season for the last seven years. 

Griner’s sentence

On August 4th, Griner was sentenced to spend nine years in a penal colony for smuggling and transporting illegal cannabis products. This is the maximum possible penalty for her infraction, and many claim that it’s a clear political statement. President Joe Biden immediately called on Russia to release Griner, saying “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates.”

Response from the WNBA

How have the WNBA and the Phoenix Mercury, Griner’s team, responded to her arrest? The WNBA announced in May that it will display Griner’s initials and jersey number on the sidelines of every WNBA game until she is returned. They’re also allowing the Mercury to raise their salary and roster caps to bring on another player as her temporary replacement.

The Mercury will continue to pay Griner her full salary, and the team has stated that they will remain in contact with her family and legal representation to do anything they can to help her return. 

How can the U.S. get Griner back?

Some experts in prisoner negotiation have theorized that Griner’s arrest and sentencing may be a ploy for Russia to try to gain some level of American cooperation during their ongoing war with Ukraine, especially as the original invasion of Ukraine happened just a week after Griner was arrested.

Since Griner pleaded guilty, she will have the option to apply for a presidential pardon in Russia, but it’s unlikely that her application will be granted without extensive help from the American government. President Biden and other U.S. officials have reportedly entered negotiations with Russia to attempt to secure Griner’s release.

Potential prisoner trade deal

One potential avenue to Griner’s release, as well as that of another American who’s imprisoned in Russia, is a prisoner trade deal. Paul Whelan is a former U.S. Marine who was arrested in Russia in December of 2018 and falsely accused of being a spy. The Biden administration has offered a deal to Russia in which Griner and Whelan would be released in exchange for an imprisoned Russian arms trafficker named Viktor Bout.

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