Brittney Griner detention: WNBA superstar heads to ‘sham trial,’ Russian court system under microscope

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Two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA star Brittney Griner will appear in court Friday, more than four months after she was arrested in Russia for allegedly bringing vape cartridges containing oils derived from cannabis through a Moscow airport.

U.S. officials fear the American basketball icon will be the subject of a “sham trial.” 

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner leaves a courtroom after a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 27, 2022.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner leaves a courtroom after a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 27, 2022.
(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Griner appeared in court Monday for the second time since her detention began in February, and her trial date was announced for later this week. 

Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, issued a statement the following day condemning her “wrongful” detention and accusing Russian officials of creating the image of a fair trial.

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“Brittney Griner has been wrongfully detained for four months, and Russia is now engaging in theater by subjecting her to a sham trial in an effort to create a false pretense that she is anything other than a political prisoner,” Allred said in a press release. 

Griner could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

According to a report from the State Department — “Russia 2021 Human Rights Report”  —judges can be subject to the influence of “the executive branch, the armed forces and other security forces”  in “high-profile or politically sensitive cases.”

That same report also found that the outcomes of some trials “appeared predetermined” and that, in 2020, only 0.34% of defendants were acquitted. Even if Griner is acquitted, the ruling could be overturned under Russian law. 

Brittney Griner is escorted into a courtroom for a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 27, 2022.

Brittney Griner is escorted into a courtroom for a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 27, 2022.
(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Trials by jury showed higher acquittal rates (23% in 2019). However, these instances are rare and acquittals by jury “were sometimes overturned by judges in appellate courts.” Under Russian law, narcotics smuggling cases were subject to a trial by jury, although it was not immediately known if this would be the case for Griner. 

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William Pomeranz, acting director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on Russian law, told The New York Times this week that the expectation in going to trial is that the defendant will more than likely be found guilty. 

“There’s a bias mainly because the Russian judicial system says they really should not go to trial unless the defendant is going to be convicted,” Pomeranz explained. “There’s no real idea or expectation that the defendant could be innocent. There’s no presumption of innocence, really.”

Thomas Firestone, a former resident legal adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, echoed that sentiment on the eve of Griner’s trial.

A close-up of Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury at practice and media availability during the 2021 WNBA Finals Oct. 11, 2021, at Footprint Center in Phoenix.

A close-up of Brittney Griner of the Phoenix Mercury at practice and media availability during the 2021 WNBA Finals Oct. 11, 2021, at Footprint Center in Phoenix.
(Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

“It’s not usually a question of what the verdict will be,” he told The Washington Post, “It’s more a question of what the sentence will be.”

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Griner was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport Feb. 17 after she was accused of bringing vape cartridges containing oils derived from cannabis through security. Her arrest came a week before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, but news of her detention did not spread until March.

Fox News’ Ryan Gaydos contributed to this report. 

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