Today, basketball superstar Brittney Griner plead guilty to the drug charges at the root of her wrongful detainment in Russia, where she has been held for 140 days.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner quietly spoke in English, which was then translated into Russian, according to Reuters.
Griner’s trial officially began last Friday, July 1st. She’s been held in Russia since February 17th due to vape cartridges containing cannabis oil (specifically, hashish) supposedly found in her luggage while playing for the Russian professional basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA off-season. In May, the U.S. State Department designated Griner as wrongfully detained, moving her case under the supervision of its Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. If Griner is convicted, she faces up to 10 years in Russian prison.
Which is all to say, Griner’s guilty plea today is incredibly high stakes. And even that can feel like an understatement.
Griner’s plea came hours after Sergei A. Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, pushed back against the Biden administration for trying to “foment hype” around her case, while simultaneously indicating that Moscow would be prepared to negotiate her fate, but only after the court reached a verdict, as reported by The New York Times.
This indication and reporting seems to align with that of other legal experts this morning, who have theorized that Griner’s guilty plea might be a strategic move. It’s a recognition of the fact that, whether or not Brittney Griner had the oil in her luggage, she was always going to be found guilty (Russian courts have over an 99% conviction rate). It was first reported that Griner might plead guilty as early as last Thursday, June 30th, before her trial even began. The most likely scenario for BG to come home is in a prisoner swap. It could be seen that her plea today is in hopes to get the trial out of the way, quickly, and for those negotiations between Russia and the United States to begin.
Last week, The New York Times also reported that specifically Russia might look to exchange a high profile person like Griner for well known Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is currently serving a 25-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans with them. The large disparity between those two cases (a vape of cannabis oil and an arms dealer so notorious there’s a movie made about him) highlights the delicate politics at hand.
Officially the Kremlin claims it’s had no involvement with Griner’s case, however Ryabkov hinted that Griner’s situation would be helped by “a serious reading by the American side of the signals that they received from Russia, from Moscow, through specialized channels.”
Of course, backdropped against all of this is increased public pressure in the United States for Biden to do something — anything — to bring home a decorated Olympian and basketball legend, the first out athlete to ever have an endorsement deal with Nike dating back to 2013. Originally the public understanding was that making large noise about Griner only served to make her more valuable to Putin. But after Griner was officially named “wrongfully detained” in May, sentiment shifted, and the Biden administration has appeared slow to adjust, which only allowed frustrations to grow.
Brittney Griner’s wife, Cherelle, who is a law student herself, has been leading the charge. She noted in May that she had yet to have as much as phone call with the President, a base acknowledgement that her country was thinking about her in this difficult time. She finally received that phone call just yesterday, on BG’s 139th day being held in Russia — and only after mounting public outrage, including a letter signed by more than 1200 Black women leaders sent to the White House over the weekend, and a letter sent to Biden by Griner herself, describing how terrified she is that she will be forgotten in Russia alone. Last month, the State Department apologized for an error that meant Brittney and Cherelle, who were supposed to have a coordinated call from prison on their wedding anniversary, instead spent the day alone.
I started writing this report up with the hopes that by the time I reached the end, I’d have something useful or productive to say — that’s always my goal, and it’s never felt more important, with so much on the line. There are slivers of hope here. After months of disappearing out of headlines, Brittney Griner’s case finally seems to gaining the national attention it deserves. After months of silence, Cherelle Griner was finally able to have a direct discussion with the President and Vice-President. If legal analysts are to be believed, even Griner’s guilty plea — which can seem alarming on its own — might be the first real step to bringing her home, which is what we all want. I want it so desperately.
But it’s also hard not to keep holding my breath, you know? Not to be fearful of the other shoe dropping. I have to say that as a Black queer woman, hearing that another Black queer woman intentionally plead guilty out of an abundance of good faith that a guilty verdict will be read by the Russian and U.S. governments as a sign to bring her home… that’s scary at best. At worst it’s a dangerous misreading of how queerness, gender, and race are historically shadowed into law. There’s also — no other choice. I know there is no other choice, and the stakes are too high to pretend otherwise.
So maybe that’s just what today is, holding our breath and being aware of the worst, but willfully, stubbornly holding on to the best.
End this nightmare. Bring BG home.