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American basketball star Brittney Griner is likely to face trial for alleged drug offenses in Russia, legal experts say, but a dearth of details about her current predicament and escalating tensions between Russia and the United States make it hard to predict how her case may unfold.
Russian law experts contacted by The Arizona Republic differed in their estimation of how Griner will fare in the Russian criminal justice system. One said he fears the two-time Olympic gold medalist is "in a lot of trouble," while another said the Russian legal system has the capacity to be fair, but also to be politically motivated, depending on the case.
From the WNBA to members of Congress, there has been an outpouring of concern for Griner since news of her detention spread over the weekend. The 6-foot-9 center, who has made the all-star game seven times since joining the Phoenix Mercury in 2013, is one of several WNBA players who spend the off-season playing basketball in Russia, where salaries are significantly higher than the American league.
But during her latest travels in the country, where she plays for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, she was detained after customs officials claim to have found vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage. Her current whereabouts and how long she has been in detention are unknown.
Several current and former politicians have spoken out, including Democratic Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro, who wrote on Twitter that Griner’s detention “follows a pattern of Russia wrongly detaining & imprisoning U.S. citizens.” “U.S. citizens are not political pawns,” he wrote.
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“There are no words to express this pain,” Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, wrote on Instagram on Saturday. A change.org petition demanding her swift release had on Tuesday afternoon gathered close to 40,000 signatures and counting.
But much still remains unclear about Griner's situation. When was she detained? Where is she now? How is she doing? Does she have access to consular support and a lawyer? And what bearing, if any, will the extraordinary tensions between Russia and the United States in the context of the Ukraine war have on her situation?
A common refrain among Russian law experts contacted by The Republic on Monday was that they only knew what they'd read in the media. Three outlined the criminal justice system they expect Griner to navigate in the months ahead.
‘She’s in a lot of trouble’
"She's in a lot of trouble, I fear,” said William Pomeranz, acting director of the Kennan Institute.
"I assume she'll have a trial," said Pomeranz, who has practiced law in Russia. "I assume she'll be convicted. There is a 99% conviction rate in the Russian Federation.
“In light of the relations between the U.S. and Russia, I have every belief that the Russians will make an example of this poor woman."
The Russian Customs Service said in a post on the messaging service Telegram Saturday that a U.S. athlete had been detained at the Sheremetyevo Airport outside Moscow in February.
After the basketballer’s carry-on luggage caught the attention of a sniffer dog, customs officers found vape cartridges containing hash oil, the post read. It said Griner faces a criminal case for smuggling narcotic drugs in a significant amount, which carries a sentence of 5-10 years imprisonment.
The post did not name Griner. Attached was a video of a person who appears to be Griner at the airport, and another image, an apparent photo of Griner in custody, was aired on Russian state television on Tuesday.
Griner last posted on Instagram on Feb. 5. It is unclear when she was detained and why the Russian Customs Service has now spoken publicly about it.
Pomeranz said it was difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the delay.
“The Russian justice system moves at its own pace,” he said.
"I have no way of knowing whether the charges are legitimate or not. But once a person gets stuck in the Russian criminal justice system, it is very hard to dislodge from that system."
"They will use (her detention) to whatever ways they feel would be to the Russian state's advantage,” he said.
An inquisitorial system
Jeffrey Kahn, a professor of law at Southern Methodist University, told The Republic a foreigner arrested in Russia has “no more and no fewer rights than a Russian citizen.”
It is not so simple, he said, as the relevant embassy leaping in to help them out of a tight spot: “That's not the case with the U.S. embassy and it's not the case with any embassies I know of. The citizen is subject to the jurisdiction of the law.”
The Russian criminal justice system used to be a “classic example” of the inquisitorial system, Kahn said, as opposed to the adversarial system seen in U.S. courtrooms.
"The inquisitorial system is built on the idea that the search for truth, rather than resolved by the clash of evidence put forward by witnesses called by the parties, must be done by the state,” he said. “There is in the Russian system a prosecutor, a defense attorney, and an investigator. The investigator's job is to build the case file. As the saying goes: ‘What is not in the case file, is not in the world.’”
The 2001 introduction of a new criminal procedure code changed that somewhat, adding adversarial elements to the Russian system that strengthened rights for the defense. But, Kahn said, “the problem is that the case file — the most important part of an inquisitorial system — has been retained.”
“Ms Griner's attorney will have the opportunity to call witnesses and produce evidence," Kahn said. "But it will all be through the prism of the case file. You have some adversarial principles, and in some cases, even a jury. But you still have a case file prepared by a state official. There's a bit of a thumb on a scale for the case file. And the defense attorney's job is to get what you need into the case file.”
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Kahn said he could not speculate about the legitimacy of the charges against Griner, but noted that both Russian and foreign defendants have in the past said Russian criminal charges against them were trumped up.
“The Russian criminal justice system is fully capable of switching between a system that is as careful and thoughtful and deliberate as our own, and one that is under the control of the political authorities,” he said.
A zero tolerance policy
William Butler, a professor of law at Penn State Dickinson, said the Russian legal system has a “zero tolerance policy” when it comes to narcotics.
“Insofar as we know any details at all, it looks like a straightforward case,” he said, adding that he guessed it would proceed to trial quickly.
"The American embassy is understaffed at the moment," he said. "It will make it more difficult for them to monitor her situation."
Asked if Griner would be treated well in custody, he said “I don’t see why not.”
Kahn said it was unclear if Griner would be remanded to a Russian pretrial detention center, or "sizo", but “if she is remanded, they exist throughout Russia (as in the U.S.) and are rather unpleasant places to be.”
The WNBA season resumes in May. Whether Griner will be back in Phoenix, demonstrating her on-court heroics for the Mercury, is anyone's guess.
Reach reporter Lane Sainty at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lanesainty.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Russian law experts debate the next steps for Brittney Griner