TOP STORIES Russian court sentenced Griner to 9 years, increasing pressure...

Russian court sentenced Griner to 9 years, increasing pressure on Biden

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On Thursday, a Russian court sentenced American basketball star Britney Griner to nine years in a maximum security penal colony after being convicted on drug charges. This harsh punishment links her fate to the geopolitical showdown around the war in Ukraine and adds to the already strong pressure. on President Biden to secure her release.

The US government claims she is among several Americans who have been “wrongfully detained” by Russia and used as a bargaining chip in the increasingly hostile relationship between Moscow and Washington. The Biden administration offered Ms Griner a prisoner swap, but Russian officials said it was premature to discuss the deal while her case was pending.

Now that the lawsuit is over, Mr. Biden faces a difficult choice: stick with his trade offer for Ms. Greener and another American, Paul N. Whelan, or sweeten the offer somehow, with either position open to internal criticism. .

In the meantime, the Kremlin can use them as leverage without any incentive to resolve cases quickly. Its supporters, horrified at the verdict and sentencing, are demanding the president do something, while the administration is wary of falling for what it almost calls blackmail, Russian tactics.

“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and use every means possible to get Britney and Paul Whelan home safe and sound as soon as possible,” Mr. Biden said in a statement following the sentencing.

Ms Griner, 31, one of the world’s biggest stars in her sport, sat mostly expressionless with her eyes downcast, her long body leaning against the bars of the dock in a cramped courtroom outside Moscow to hear the judge’s words Anna S. Sotnikova, imperceptibly for her were translated. She had already pleaded guilty, and the conviction in the Russian courts is virtually certain, so the verdict was a foregone conclusion; the real question was about the verdict.

The response was devastating. The sentence was close to the 10-year maximum sentence of her conviction for attempting to smuggle drugs into the country based on two e-cigarette cartridges containing hash oil found in Ms Greener’s luggage when she arrived in February, a week before how Russian President Vladimir V. Putin sent his forces across the border into Ukraine.

She and her legal team hoped for a lighter sentence based on her guilty plea, her statement that she had no intention of taking the bullets to Russia, and her testimony that she used the substance legally in the United States to relieve pain. .

“I made an honest mistake and I hope your ruling does not end my life here,” she said before sentencing.

She told the court that although she took responsibility for her actions, “I had no intention of violating Russian law.” She said that after recovering from a bout of Covid, she hurriedly packed up to return to the Russian team she plays for during the WNBA off-season and accidentally left the cartridges in her luggage.

“I know that everyone keeps talking about political pawn and politics,” she added, “but I hope this is not the same courtroom.”

Ms Greener’s defense called the decision “completely unfounded”, said the court “completely disregarded all defense evidence and, most importantly, the guilty plea” and vowed to appeal. Elizabeth Rood, Deputy Chief of Mission for the US Embassy in Moscow, who was present at the trial, called the result a “judicial error.”

Russian officials insist that Ms Griner’s case is simply a work of the justice system with no political overtones, a claim that their American counterparts and many Western analysts have dismissed as absurd.

William Pomeranz, a Russia expert and acting director of the Kennan Institute, a Washington-based research group, noted that Ms. Griner was sentenced not to prison, but to a penal colony, which usually means a more remote location – many in Siberia. — and more severe conditions.

“She will probably go to a penal colony in the center of Russia where she won’t recognize anyone,” he added. “They won’t be able to come and visit. Penal colonies can sometimes be very harsh. If she ends up in a strict regime colony, it will be a huge test for her mental state.”

The United States has few options, he said. “It will just depend on the Russians and how quickly they want to make a deal.”

Basketball players, men and women, and basketball company executives have taken to social media to show support for Ms. Griner and express regret over the verdict. Ms Greener’s team, the Phoenix Mercury, said in a statement: “We remain heartbroken for her, as we have every day for nearly six months. We remain grateful and confident in the government workers who work every day to bring her back to her family and to us.”

Due to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the indiscriminate destruction it caused, relations between Washington and Moscow have become more confrontational and bitter than in recent decades. The United States has rallied the West to send arms and other aid to Ukraine, and to punish Moscow with economic sanctions, looking for ways to increase pressure.

The two sides have exchanged prisoners before, most recently in April, when Russia released Trevor R. Reed, an American held on bogus assault charges, according to his family, in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted in the United States of dealing cocaine. accusations. But rarely have exchanges been offered under such tension or involving someone as famous as Ms. Greener.

In a sign of how high the stakes are for Washington, the fate of Ms. Griner was among the topics discussed last Friday by Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken and Russian Foreign Secretary Sergei Lavrov in their first direct conversation since the invasion. .

The Biden administration offered to trade Ms. Greener and Mr. Whelan for Victor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in 2011 on federal charges of conspiring to sell weapons to people posing as terrorists who intend to kill Americans. Mr Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018, was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

The White House said on Monday that Russia had made an unspecified “bad faith” counteroffer that US officials said they did not consider serious.

John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters Thursday: “I don’t think it would be helpful for Britney or Paul to be more public about where we are in the negotiations and what the president can or can do. don’t want to do it.”

“Conversations are being held at different levels,” he added.

If Mr. Biden follows through on his original offer, he could be accused of not doing enough.

Ms. Griner’s wife, Cherell Griner, and other supporters launched an effective public campaign to pressure the President to secure her release. Supporters are concerned about her treatment in a country where anti-American and anti-gay sentiment is deeply rooted in popular views and official propaganda. Images of a grim-faced Ms Griner being led handcuffed into and out of court, towering over her armed guards, have become commonplace in US and international media.

The administration could make a more attractive offer, but U.S. officials are already concerned that prisoner deals could encourage hostile foreign governments to detain Americans on trumped-up charges in exchange for concessions such as the release of their own offenders. Some Republicans have already complained that Mr. Biden’s existing proposal creates such an incentive.

The 6’9″ center Ms. Griner won a college national championship with Baylor in 2012, a WNBA championship with the Mercury in 2014, Olympic gold medals with Team USA in 2016 and 2020, and four Euroleague championships with Team Russia UMMC Yekaterinburg. Like many WNBA players, where salaries are much lower than in the NBA, Ms. Griner, who also played one season for a professional team in China, played overseas to supplement her income.

The report has been provided Michael Crowley, Jonathan Abrams as well as Tanya Ganguly.

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