You may have heard by now that American basketball player Brittney Griner was convicted of drug crimes in Russia and sentenced to nine years in prison. Her supporters have called this a wrongful detention and may be traded back to the United States in a prisoner swap. But no one is talking about just how egregious it is that a WNBA player’s crime should set a Russian arms dealer free.
Brittney Griner, who is 31, has played basketball in Russia since 2014, the same year that Russia annexed Crimea away from Ukraine. She continued to play for Russian teams between 2014 and the 2021-2022 season. She is obviously familiar with Russia, having traveled to and from the country many times. On February 17, 2022, she flew to Russia to play her eighth season of Russian Premier League basketball. She earns roughly $1 million per season playing there.
Despite her familiarity with Russia, Griner flew into Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. These are illegal in Russia. It is also illegal to fly with marijuana in the United States. The cannabis was discovered by a drug sniffing dog. The Russian Federal Customs Service then put the luggage through an X-ray and saw the cartridges. Griner was arrested at the airport. Just a week later, Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
Griner faced a minimum of five years and a maximum of ten years in prison. Analysts thought it was likely that she would get the maximum. Griner pleaded guilty. She apologized before her sentencing. She was sentenced to 9 years in prison.
Who did the US Trade for Griner?
Even though Griner admitted that she was guilty was given a legal sentence, President Biden said that “Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney.”
The U.S. offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner and another American. Bout, who is called “The Merchant of Death,” was the inspiration for the 2005 film Lord of War starring Nicholas Cage. The former Soviet officer illegally sold 700 surface-to-air missiles, thousands of guns, high-tech helicopters and planes fitted wit grenade launchers. He worked with the Taliban, Muammar Gaddafi, and Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. He was arrested in Thailand after a sting operation in 2011.
The trade went through on December 8, 2022 in a 1-for-1 prisoner swap for Bout.
We Aren’t Talking About Brittany Griner’s Mistakes
Brittany Griner is not a child. She is a multi-millionaire in her 30s. She had flown back and forth to Russia multiple times every year since 2014. She also flew regularly with her WNBA team. Despite this, she broke US laws by flying with marijuana in her carry-on luggage. As you read this, you might be thinking that this is a minor crime, and it is. But it is a crime. And despite her extensive experience with Russia, she broke Russian law by bringing drugs there too. Given her history, she cannot credibly say that she didn’t know she was committing a crime. Given her age, she can’t write it off to inexperience.
She pleaded guilty and apologized. She was given a legal sentence. We may think the sentence was too harsh, but Russians are in charge of Russian laws, not Americans. Our opinion does not matter.
Since Griner is famous, rich, and connected, she was able to get the federal government to attempt to get her back. In that way, she is already more privileged than virtually any other American arrested abroad. Moreover, the US set free an extremely dangerous man in exchange for Griner’s release.
This is what we aren’t talking about. Griner’s mistakes led directly to the release of a cartoonishly dangerous Russian arms dealer. The media seems to be talking around that by focusing on the length of the sentence. Nine years for marijuana possession is shocking for a generation of Americans used to authorities ignoring marijuana possession or winking at it, even in those states where it remains illegal. Griner, and her relatives, should pause for a moment to consider whether it is in the national interest to trade a rich athlete with a history of violence against women for a man so notorious that a movie was made about his criminal exploits.
If Griner had followed the rules, like the rest of us, that arms dealer would be staying right where he belongs, in federal prison. Griner’s crime is robbing the arm’s dealer’s victims of justice in a very literal way. Yes, it’s just marijuana that she tried to sneak in. That’s a minor crime. But her minor crime became much worse because of the consequences. Griner should not be treated as a returning hero, or even a returning hostage. She should be treated as the woman whose admittedly illegal conduct let “The Lord of War” out of prison. And that is not a minor thing at all.
Griner said that she unintentionally packed the cannabis canisters in her suitcase because she was in a hurry. Although this detail should be included out of fairness to Griner, the reader should know that every drug criminal has an excuse or explanation when they are caught. The fact that she still pled guilty shows that this is not a legal excuse for her crime. Indeed, her own legal team said that her guilty plea was intended to “take full responsibility for her actions.”
One of the more interests parts of Griner’s biography is the contrast between her protests against the American government and her years of working in Russia apparently without protest. She refused to play basketball after the death of Breonna Taylor and has protested the playing of the national anthem. Her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, is owned by the second largest copper producer in Russia. The owner of this copper producer, Iskander Makhmudov, is a billionaire oligarch with ties to Vladimir Putin. Even team executives have problematic ties to the political order. For example her team’s president was added to an EU sanctions list for supporting the war in Ukraine.