Brittney Griner Sentenced to 9 Years in Prison

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Brittney Griner in happier times. Photo courtesy of Feminema, Creative Commons

Traveling with drugs to foreign countries– who are these people?

THE SERAAJ REPORT, by Kevin Seraaj

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WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced to nine years in Russia prison today after being found guilty by a court there of smuggling drugs. Griner was arested in February at a Moscow airport after officials said they discovered vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her bags. Her arrest and prosecution has received global attention, especially in light of the U.S.-Russia dispute over Ukraine.

Brittney Griner
Griner has been sentenced to 9 years in a Russian prison for possession of a small quantity of cannabis oil. Diplomatic talks are underway to engineer a prisoner swap to secure her release.

Griner is highly visible.  The 6’9″ phenom is the only NCAA basketball player to both score 2,000 points and block 500 shots.  She is a three-time All-American who in 2012 was named the AP Player of the Year and the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.  She also is one of only 11 women to receive an Olympic gold medal, an NCAA championship, a FIBA World Cup gold medal and a WNBA championship. So, what was she thinking?  She has well-earned notoriety, so eyes are always on her.  Maybe even more so since July of 2020, when Griner took a stand on the Breonn Taylor shooting:

“I honestly feel we should not play the national anthem during our season. I think we should take that much of a stand. . . . I’m not going to be out there for the national anthem,” she said. “If the league continues to want to play it, that’s fine. It will be all season long, I’ll not be out there.”

Griner was playing ball in Russia because she was not being paid a fare wage for her talent here in America.  So maybe she got it twisted.  Perhaps she thought that because Russia was willing to pay her, she had arrived at the intersection of acceptance and respect in the former Soviet Union where she shuld have been in the U.S.  And maybe she had, but all things changed with the War on Ukraine and the U.S. imposition of economic sanctions on Russia.  

Griner’s words, and some cannabis oil, likely gave Russia what it needed to transform a queen into a pawn.

It’s not too far-fetched to believe that Russia was aware of Griner’s position. (If I’m beginning to sound like a conspiracy theorist, charge it to my head and not to my heart.) After special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate what was widely believed to be Russia’s interference in the 2016 United States elections, his two-year-long investigation concluded that Russia interfered in “sweeping and systematic fashion.” And in July 2019 he testified before congress that the Russians continue to interfere in U.S. elections “as we sit here”, and that “many more countries” have developed disinformation campaigns targeting U.S. elections, based partly on the Russian model. Disinformation is, after all, largely an information-gathering process.

Juxtaposed photos of Brittney Griner and Audrey Lorber
Brittney Griner (l) and Audrey Lorber were both convicted by Russian courts of smuggling weed into the country. Lorber had 17 grams; Griner had less than 1. Lorber was released after less than 2 months.

In 2019, nineteen-year-old Audrey Lorber was arrested for taking 17 grams of THC into Russia. She was found guilty of “attempting to import marijuana purchased in the U.S. into Russia.” Lorber had 17 grams of weed. (Griner had 0.7– less than 1 gram– of cannabis oil). Both said the substances were used for medicinal purposes and both offered proof. Lorber was fined 15,000 rubles ($235), “according to a statement released by the press service of St. Petersburg’s courts.” She was given credit for the less than 2 months time she served, released and then exempted from paying the fine. Ten days after her sentence she was on a plane headed home to the United States.

Why such harsh punishment for a sports figure working to improve Russia’s presence in the world of international basketball?

During her sentencing, Griner appealed to the judge, asking for leniency:

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“I know everybody keeps talking about ‘political pawn’ and ‘politics,’” she said. “But I hope that is far from this courtroom.”

Griner’s plea for leniency can be chalked up to political naivete. In most observer pools, Griner’s sentencing was clearly political– an attention-grabbing pushback by Russia against the U.S. for meddling in its war with Ukraine. But while a large number of Americans believe Griner has become a pawn in this over-arching dispute, there are those who feel that for Griner, the chickens have come home to roost.

A few days before she pled guilty, Griner sent a letter to the White House pleading for the president to use his power to get released. In that letter, she said, in part: “On the 4th of July, our family normally honors the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father, who is a Vietnam war veteran. It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year.”

Jail changes things. And 9 years in a Russian prison changes everything.

It would be easy to chalk up the differences in the sentencings of Griner and Lorber to race. Griner is, of course, black, and Lorber is white. But that would be a hasty conclusion that ignores the case of Marc Fogel.

Sixty-year-old Marc Fogel, who worked for the US Embassy in Russia for nearly a decade teaching the children of U.S. diplomats was also arrested for carrying marijuana into Russia. What is it about carrying weed into Russia? He had to have known better. He boarded a plane in the U.S. last year and flew to Russia with half an ounce of weed. How he got past TSA officials is a story in and of itself, but when he arrived his package was discovered.

Fogel was arrested and languished in Russian custody until last month. While the world was focused on Griner, Fogel pled guilty in the same court that tried Griner and was found guilty of “large-scale drugs smuggling.” He received a 14-year sentence at a hard labor camp. Fogel is also white.

If not race, how else to explain the difference in sentences? Perhaps the individuals’ connections to politics. Fogel worked for ten years in a job that conceivably caused him to be suspected of espionage. Rather than risk further escalating tensions between the two governments with trumped up charges, Fogel’s weed may have given the Russians exactly what they needed to put him under arrest. It’s hard to explain the hard labor sentence otherwise, except that in America, people are incarcerated for even more time than that for being found with weed.

Griner certainly was no smuggler. The amount of cannabis oil she was carrying was clearly only enough for her personal use, but she is a dissident with plenty of attention already focused on her. It made her a perfect candidate for Russian retaliation and prisoner swap negotiations.

The 9-year sentence ups the ante for the U.S. It’s announcement becomes an added inducement for the U.S. to structure a prisoner exchange deal. The Kremlin wants convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout released from his American prison cell, and the Biden administration wants Griner and Paul Whelan released. Whelan was arrested in 2020 on charges of espionage. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Friday that he had urged Russia to accept a proposal that would bring them both home.

Griner is said to be understandably upset about the prospect of spending 9 years in a Russian prison.

President Joe Biden issued a statement calling Griner’s sentencing “unacceptable,” and promising to work towards the release of the two Americans.

“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

I hope the President gets this done ASAP. Griner doesn’t belong in prison any more than does Audrey Lorber. Fogel’s family also wants him released and back home. It’s a little curious that he’s not already being talked about by adminstration officials.

There is, of course another element to this prosecution that I have largely ignored– because public opinion in Russia is every bit as evocative as it is in the U.S. And according to MSN.com, “under president Vladimir Putin, Russia has shown an increasingly intolerant attitude toward transgender and LGBTQ+ people in general.” Griner’s sexual preference has largely been unspoken during the proceedings, but it’s part of her international notoriety. She has been everywhere outspoken about being a proud, black lesbian. In Russia, being gay is “legal,” but for the most part unacceptable. In fact, in 2017, 71.4 percent of Russians said “homosexuality” was “not justifiable.” And two years later, in 2019, the question was asked: “Should society accept homosexuals?” Seventy-four percent of respondents said “no.”

As late as September, 2021, only 14 percent of Russian respondents said they totally agreed with the statement that gays and lesbians in Russia should enjoy same rights as other citizens; another 19 percent said they “rather agreed.” That’s still only 33 percent who kind of think LGBTQ persons should have equal rights in modern-day Russia.

Listen, if you plan on traveling to Russia, whether straight or gay, here’s a hot tip just for you: leave the damn weed–and the cannabis oil– at home!

UPDATED 08/14/2022

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