American basketball player Brittney Griner held hostage by Russian diplomacy?

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American basketball player Brittney Griner, who was tried in Russia for drug trafficking, is not the only foreigner who was detained by Moscow in difficult conditions. Is Russia building a pool of international prisoners to be traded as pawns for diplomats?

The timeline is confusing. American basketball player Brittney Griner has been held in a Russian prison since February 2022, when Russia’s Federal Customs Service said he discovered e-cigarette liquid containing cannabis in her luggage upon arrival at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport from New York. A week later, the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops began.

In the US, many commentators see the 31-year-old champion’s detention as a political maneuver by Russia, calling Brittney Griner’s hearing in the Khimki court in a Moscow suburb a “show trial”. the 1ah July. A trial where the American star pleaded guilty to drug smuggling on Thursday July 7th. You face up to ten years in prison.

“This is a time of heightened tensions between Russia and the United States,” said Ben Noble, a professor at University College London and a specialist in Russian politics. “Brittney Griner’s incarceration may or may not have been politically motivated, but either way this case has become a politicized one.”

Overcrowded cell, lack of privacy

“I’m scared of staying here forever,” Brittney Griner wrote in a July 4 letter to US President Joe Biden, after already spending five months behind bars. “Please don’t forget me and the other American prisoners. Do what you can to bring us home.”

The head of American diplomacy, Antony Blinken, responded on Twitter that the United States would know “no respite” until the basketball champion and “all other Americans wrongfully imprisoned” were released.


As with other prisoners, Brittney Griner’s conditions are harsh: overcrowded cells, poor beds, limited showers and communal toilets. But the ordeal doesn’t stop there. In most cases, there is little hope of a fair trial, said Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International’s Russia researcher.

After the trial, the guilty are sent to penal colonies where conditions aren’t much better – forced labour, minimal infrastructure and a lack of medical care are the order of the day.

Two Americans, four Brits and one Moroccan

Brittney Griner is not the only foreign inmate in this case. Former US Marine Paul Whelan, who has been jailed in Russia since 2018, is currently serving a 16-year sentence on espionage charges – a charge he and US officials continue to deny.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, convictions of foreigners have multiplied. Four British nationals and a Moroccan were jailed after being captured on Ukrainian soil and convicted by Russian courts of fighting as mercenaries. Three of them were sentenced to death.

It is difficult to know the exact conditions of detention of these foreigners. “There are penal colonies where foreigners are held under probably more flexible conditions, but not necessarily,” said Natalia Prilutskaya. “Especially when the authorities want to put pressure on a certain prisoner or use him as a pawn.”

A long and meticulous diplomatic work

In the case of Brittney Griner, her status as a high-profile athlete could make her an especially valuable prisoner for whom the United States could pay the price of her repatriation. “She could well be viewed by Russian political leaders as a possible prisoner swap candidate, including for Russian national Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer imprisoned in the United States,” Ben Noble said.

A similar exchange took place in April 2022, when American Trevor Reed was released in exchange for a Russian citizen being held in a US prison for drug trafficking. The former Marine was sentenced to nine years in prison for endangering “the life and health” of Russian police officers, a charge he and US officials have denied. He was held for nearly three years before being released after what the White House described as “months and months of hard, tedious work.”

That may be the only hope for Brittney Griner and the other inmates today, but it will take a lot of patience, even though the White House pledged on July 5 to “do whatever it takes” to secure the basketball player and Paul Whelan’s release .

According to Ben Noble, it is not certain that the Russian authorities intend to arrest other foreigners on political grounds, but in any case, trips to Russia are no longer legion. “Brittney Griner’s case could deter foreigners from setting foot on Russian soil so they don’t suffer the same fate,” he said.

This article was adapted from English by Bahar Makooi. Click here to find the original text.


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