MOSCOW– October 13, 2022— Brittney Griner, the American basketball star facing nine years in prison in Russia, is increasingly anxious about her chances of being freed in a prisoner swap and struggling emotionally, one of her lawyers has said.
“She has not been in as good condition as I could sometimes find her in,” the lawyer, Alexander D. Boykov, said in a recent interview.
Griner is allowed outside once a day, Boykov said, during which she walks for an hour in a small courtyard at a penal colony outside Moscow where she was detained after a Russian court convicted her on drug possession charges.
Griner spends the rest of her time in a small cell with two cellmates, sitting and sleeping on a specially elongated bed to accommodate her 6-foot-9 frame, Boykov added. She is in her ninth month in detention, with a hearing about the appeal of her conviction scheduled for Oct. 25.
She’s not optimistic.
“She is not yet absolutely convinced that America will be able to take her home,” Boykov said, adding that he had spoken to Griner on Tuesday. “She is very worried about what the price of that will be, and she is afraid that she will have to serve the whole sentence here in Russia.”
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden said that there had been no movement with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, over Griner’s case. A day earlier, Biden told CNN that he would only talk to Putin at a Group of 20 meeting to be held in Bali, Indonesia, next month if it was to discuss her situation.
Boykov said that the uncertainty over which type of prison Griner would end up in is a particular concern, as she fears it will be one with miserable or inhumane conditions.
Griner, 31, was stopped in February at an airport near Moscow on her way to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a Russian professional women’s basketball team. Customs officials said that she had been carrying two vape cartridges with hashish oil in her luggage. In August, she was sentenced to nine years in prison after a trial that was all but assured to end in a conviction.
The United States has said that her detention and trial were politically motivated and that the Kremlin wants to exchange her for high-profile Russian citizens held in the United States.
Before the appeals court hearing, Boykov said that he hoped Griner’s nine-year sentence, which he called “an unprecedented punishment” for marijuana possession, would be reduced.
“Perhaps the verdict will somehow be changed, and perhaps the sentence will be reduced, because the decision taken by the first court is very different from judicial practice,” he said. “Considering all the circumstances, taking into account my client’s personality traits and her admission of guilt, such a verdict should be absolutely impossible.”
While she waits, Boykov said, Griner struggles in large part because it is “very difficult” to speak to her relatives.
“She suffers a lot without her family because she hasn’t seen them for so long and it’s very difficult to talk to them in any way,” Boykov said, adding that it had been very difficult to organize phone calls with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and that Brittney Griner had been unable to speak to her parents or siblings since her detention, as far as he was aware.
In an interview with “CBS Mornings” last week, Cherelle Griner said that she had been able to speak to her wife only twice since February, adding that the most recent conversation had been so disturbing that she cried for two or three days afterward.
“It was the most disturbing phone call I’d ever experienced,” she told the interviewer, Gayle King, adding that her wife worried about being abandoned in Russia.
Ekaterina Kalugina, a journalist, visited Brittney Griner in her cell in the springtime as part of a civil society team that monitors the conditions in Russian prisons. She said in a phone interview that Griner’s two cellmates at the time were women who spoke English and were also in prison on drug-related charges. She said that Griner had been reading a translation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel “Demons,” a political tragedy considered one of the author’s most important works.
Griner was also reading a biography of the rock band the Rolling Stones, Kalugina said, adding that she sometimes also played a game with her cellmates that is similar to the board game Battleship.
Kalugina said that in Griner’s lockup, a pretrial detention center inside Correctional Colony No. 1, women were allowed to shower twice a week. She also said that, when they met, Griner had told her she was suffering from pain including headaches.
Boykov said that the prison was dated and uncomfortable. “It’s an old building, and made of stone,” he noted. “When it is hot outside, it’s too hot, and when it’s cold outside, it is too cold.”
Kalugina, who works for the tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets, said that she was no longer able to visit Griner as part of the public oversight commission that is supposed to inspect and monitor prison conditions. After she visited in April, Kalugina said, she reported to the commission that Griner needed a longer bed and she was able to lodge a request with authorities.
Officials in Washington said that they had not given up on negotiations for Griner and other Americans that U.S. authorities have designated as “wrongfully detained,” including Paul Whelan, who has been in a Russian prison for almost four years on espionage charges that the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow derided as “bogus.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the return of Griner and Whelan had his “full attention” and that the State Department was “focused on it every single day.”
“No. 1 on my list of priorities around the world is doing everything we can to bring home any American, anywhere, who’s being arbitrarily or unjustly detained,” Blinken told a news conference in Santiago, Chile, this month, urging Moscow to accept the “substantial proposal” Washington put on the table months ago. It was an oblique reference to a proposed swap of Griner and Whelan for the convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
The White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, told reporters this month that the United States had not received a serious response to that offer. “We need to see a serious counteroffer,” she said.
A White House official said last week that the administration was trying “every available channel” with Moscow, including the one through which U.S. officials arranged a prisoner swap in April to secure the release of Trevor Reed, a former Marine who had been serving a nine-year prison sentence in Russia.
The official declined to provide details of that channel. But American officials have said that U.S. government efforts in that case were led by John Sullivan, the ambassador to Russia at the time, and by the team of Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. Bill Richardson, a former ambassador to the United Nations who runs a nongovernmental group that works to free American prisoners and hostages overseas, landed in Moscow the day before Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February to discuss Reed, who was released April 27 after being detained in Russia for 985 days.
Richardson, who has been unofficially negotiating with Russian officials as a private citizen, said Sunday that he was “cautiously optimistic” that Griner and Whelan would be released and suggested that they could be freed by the end of the year.
“I got the sense that the Russian officials that I met with, that I’ve known over the years, are ready to talk,” Richardson told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Despite Richardson’s past successes in freeing Americans in places like North Korea and Myanmar, U.S. officials have publicly discouraged such private negotiations, saying that they are not helpful to their efforts.
If Griner’s appeal is unsuccessful and she is not released, she could be sent back to the penal colony where she is currently detained, albeit to a different section, or to one of a number of prison camps for women where she may be expected to spend hours a day sewing or doing other forms of labor for meager compensation. Whelan, who was sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years, has spent most of his time sewing buttons at a prison camp in the Mordovia region of western Russia.
According to reports, Griner is being used as a bargaining chip in the war between Russia and Ukraine, giving Russia an asymmetric advantage at the negotiation table. Putin is also testing President Joe Biden’s commitment to the Colored and LGBTQ voters. Griner is both Colored and LGBTQ. Griner is well known in Russia. She has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA’s offseason since 2014.
Griner has been detained in Russia for five-months. She was sentenced to 9 1/2 years in prison for attempting to smuggle a “vaping cartridge with cannabis oil, into Russia, which is illegal.
Russian officials say that they are following due process under Russia’s law, but Putin could have released Griner and not sentence her to almost a decade in prison. She is not fluent in Russian, and at one point she tried to translate the documents with her phone.
Cannabis is illegal in Russia, but the airport’s website advises that psychotropic drugs can enter if declared with medical proof. Her lawyers later presented proof that Griner’s oil was medically prescribed, and Griner said she accidentally took the cartridges while hastily packing.
Source: Acqunetta Anderson, Reporter Bee News Daily contributed to the article. New York Times and Yahoo News contributed.