Explained: WNBA star Brittney Griner convicted in Russia, what next?

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A Russian court on Thursday (August 4) convicted US basketball star Brittney Griner of possessing and smuggling narcotics, sentencing her to 9 years in prison and a fine of 1 million rouble in the politically charged case. The verdict comes at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow are at a historic low, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered a wave of Western sanctions.

US President Joe Biden has accused Russia of wrongfully detaining Brittney Griner. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates,” he said.

The two-time Olympic gold medallist has been in custody since February 17, when two vape cartridges containing small amounts of cannabis oil were found in her luggage while she was at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.

“I’d like to plead guilty, your honour,” Griner had said after taking the stand on July 7. “But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” she added.

Griner said she unintentionally carried the cannabis oil with her, because she had packed in a hurry, reported The Guardian.

Who is Brittney Griner?

The 31-year-old was selected in 2021 as one of the best 25 players in the history of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), and is considered to be the best offensive player in the league.

Standing 6 feet 9 inches tall, the centre player has been with team Phoenix Mercury since 2013. Griner had earlier received a basketball scholarship to Baylor University, and in 2010, was the seventh player to dunk during a women’s college basketball game.

In 2012, she won a national level college championship and was given the ‘Player of the Year’ award.

Since she began her professional career in 2013, she has won two Olympic gold medals with the US women’s national basketball team and a WNBA Championship.

At the onset of her professional career, Griner came out as a lesbian in 2013, and was the first openly gay athlete to sign an endoresment deal with Nike.

Why was Brittney Griner in Russia?

Griner arrived in Russia on February 17 to play for the UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian basketball team, during the WNBA off-season. She has played with them since 2014.

Around 70 WNBA players are reportedly playing with international teams this year, instead of taking time off in the off-season, with more than a dozen in Russia and Ukraine. After the war, all but Griner left the region.

Many WNBA athletes chose to play overseas because of the massive pay disparity compared to their male counterparts in the National Basketball Association (NBA), whose earnings can go up to tens of millions of dollars. The minimum pay of an NBA player with one year’s experience is projected at $1.637 million, higher than the salary budget of an entire WNBA team, which is capped at $1.4 million, according to the Boston Globe.

Currently, WNBA players receive a minimum base salary of $60,000 and maximum of $228,000, and according to CNBC, Griner, who is one of the best basketball players in the world, reportedly earned a base salary of $221,000.

Many players don’t earn the majority of their incomes from WNBA, and can earn much higher salaries in international teams due to greater corporate and government support, according to The New York Times.

Geopolitical tensions

Griner, who is reportedly being held in a prison outside Moscow, was detained a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then, diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow sunk to an all-time low, with the US and other western countries imposing strict sanctions against Russia.

The US State Department said Griner was “wrongfully detained”, and some critics accuse Russia of using the basketball star as a political pawn in the present crisis.

Russia has denied taking Griner hostage. On Wednesday (July 7), Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexei Zaitsev said, “This is a serious offence, confirmed by indisputable evidence.

“… attempts to present the case as if the American was detained illegally do not hold up,” he added, as reported by The Guardian.

“The law has been violated, and arguments about the innocent nature of Griner’s addiction, which, by the way, is punishable in some US states, are inappropriate in this case,” Zaitsey said.

US lawmakers have accused Russia of illegally detaining their citizens. US Embassy officials attended Griner’s trial on July 7, after which Secretary of State Anthony Blinken tweeted that a letter from President Joe Biden was delivered to her.

“We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” Blinken said.

Whelan, a former US Marine. was arrested by Russian authorities in 2018 on charges of espionage.

Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

So, what happens to Griner next?

Griner’s defence team said they were “very disappointed” by the verdict and would appeal against it. According to Russian law, Griner has 10 days to appeal, and her lawyers say that they expect a hearing in a Moscow court next week, as reported by The Associated Press.

There has been growing pressure on the Biden administration to get Griner home. Her conviction could lead the way for a possible prisoner swap between the two countries.

One name circulating the media is Viktor Bout, the Russian arms trader, also known as the “Merchant of Death”, who is currently facing a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to a US designated terrorist group.

Russia has long demanded his release. However, as per The Associated Press, the disparity between Bout and Griner’s alleged crimes could perhaps be undesirable for the US.

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