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Brittney Griner stared blankly from behind white bars as the ruling was translated for her. Her eyes were empty and when they did shift focus it was only downward.
There was resignation in those eyes and lack of expression, or perhaps Griner was trying to will herself somewhere else. For those who have viewed the video, it was a window into someone else’s unimaginable nightmare.
Griner, 31, was sentenced to nine years in a Russian penal colony, and experts say such places are as bad as the term sounds. Experts on these processes also say Thursday’s ruling from Judge Anna Sotnikova of the court in the Russian city of Khimki was expected, and is the end of the beginning. One of U.S. basketball’s biggest stars will remain where she is for as long as it takes the U.S. and Russian governments to agree on the price for her release. With the “trial” over, those negotiations can begin.
That’s no reason to be optimistic, however. Prisoner exchanges are not done easily and in cases such as these, those of a certain age likely remember, the old, very American impulse to do something now only works against the cause of releasing her.
Griner’s detainment, trial, conviction and sentencing for packing vaping cartridges containing hashish oil make no sense to any reasonable person. But if we have learned anything as Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces pound Ukraine these last six months, it’s that neither Griner, nor other Americans held for a longer time in Russia, are in the hands of reasonable people. The wishes of the entire world did not matter when Putin chose to wage war, and neither U.S. nor world opinion matter in Russia now.
“Today’s verdict and sentencing is unjustified and unfortunate but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongly detained,” read a joint statement from NBA commissioner Adam Silver and WNBA commissioner Cathy Englebert. “The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”
Griner’s Phoenix Mercury teammates were at the Mohegan Sun getting ready for their game against the Connecticut Sun on Thursday night. They made their feelings known via social media and the organization issued a statement.
“While we knew it was never the legal process that was going to bring our friend home, today’s verdict is a sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare being endured by our sister, BG,” it read. “We remain heartbroken for her, as we have every day for nearly six months. We remain grateful to and confident in the public servants working every day to return her to her family and us. We remain faithful the [Biden] Administration will do what it takes to end her wrongful detention. We are inspired every day by BG’s strength and we are steadfastly committed to keeping her top-of-mind publicly until she is safely back on American soil. We will not allow her to be forgotten. We are BG.”
Several U.S. political leaders, including President Joe Biden, weighed in with a similar sentiment. Whether you are a fan of Griner, or whether you agree or disapprove of her past actions and statements, there shouldn’t be a question but that the U.S. government must do all it can to bring Griner, and other Americans held in Russia, home. But doing all it can doesn’t seem like enough to achieve this soon, given the leverage.
Griner made a dangerous choice in February when she packed her bag and headed to Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg, which paid her more than she made in the WNBA. Yes, basketball is loved and it’s big business there, too. But Arthur H. House, an adjunct professor at UConn who has worked for the National Security Council and for the director of National Intelligence, wrote in an op-ed piece for The Courant a chilling reminder that when an American citizen travels abroad, U.S. laws and rights do not follow. Griner did not take the abundance of caution that was necessary, especially with Russia’s move into Ukraine pending and relations with the U.S. strained.
She plead guilty, apologized, insisted she had no intent to break the law, that she was using the hashish oil for pain, but those pleas fell on deaf ears in a Russian court.
Now, as she sits helplessly as a geopolitical pawn in a Russian prison, the more there is outrage and outcry for her release, the more “valuable” she becomes to Putin and the more leverage he gains, as House also pointed out.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said he has made a “significant proposal” to Russia for Griner’s release. There have been numerous reports this includes releasing convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, a terrible thing to have to do, for the release of Griner and Paul Whalen. There is no telling if Russia will even accept that.
So we’re left to watch, for some of us to be haunted by Brittney Griner’s blank stare. And we are left to wait and hope for the day she is released, because at this moment waiting and hoping is still all we can do.
Dom Amore can be reached at email@example.com