An American schoolteacher was stopped at Moscow’s airport in the summer of 2021 with marijuana and hashish oil in his bags, arrested on drug trafficking charges and remains in prison while under investigation.
A young Israeli-American tourist was detained in 2019 for carrying a small amount of marijuana in her checked luggage and released nine months later on a pardon from Russian President
after high-level diplomatic negotiations.
Their cases may now be a guide for what happens to the most prominent U.S. citizen taken into custody for allegedly bringing drugs into Russia, basketball star Brittney Griner, who was arrested more than three weeks ago on charges that carry a prison sentence up to 10 years.
Griner appears to have a long road through Russia’s judicial system before a trial and potential sentencing. It could be weeks or possibly months before her situation is resolved, a legal slog that deepens the uncertainty around this clash between sports and geopolitics set against the backdrop of war.
Much about the crisis remains unclear. But what’s become clear in the days since Griner’s detention was made public is that the precedents involving U.S. citizens and Russia’s aggressive enforcement of strict drug laws are troubling for her.
The recent history of cases like Griner’s suggests slim chances of acquittal if she goes before a judge and the possible necessity of extraordinary political intervention if she receives a harsh sentence.
A top Russian attorney who has defended clients in similar cases, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about Griner’s case, said that once someone is arrested in Russia, where the acquittal rate is less than 1%, it’s nearly impossible to get that person out from behind bars.
“The power of inertia and the power of the repressive machine make it very hard to turn back,” the attorney said. “It’s more convenient to push ahead and show that the arrest was valid. If there was a crime, then there must be a punishment adequate to the crime. This is the logic by which the whole system works.”
In a situation like Griner’s, diplomatic efforts are essential but not enough, on their own, said the Russian attorney.
“If the defense isn’t impeccable, no political or public efforts will help,” the lawyer said.
Griner was flying to Russia on the eve of war because she supplements her WNBA income by spending the league’s offseason on the edge of Siberia, where a powerhouse team in Yekaterinburg owned by a billionaire oligarch lavishes more than $1 million on star players in salary and benefits. Her team had a break in February as women’s basketball paused for international play, which meant that Griner was not in Russia during the tense buildup of troops on the Ukraine border. Her flight from New York landed in Moscow on Feb. 17, one week before the invasion.
She was detained at the airport. Russian authorities have said that a drug-sniffing dog smelled narcotics in her luggage, and X-ray screening found electronic vape cartridges with hashish oil, resulting in Griner’s arrest on charges of drug smuggling.
Her agent has said she is in contact with Griner but has declined to comment further on her case. Griner’s representatives have said that she has legal counsel in Russia but haven’t identified her attorney.
The timeline for legal proceedings from here could go several different ways.
An investigator has two months to build a case against Griner, according to the Russian Criminal Procedure Code, but that window can be extended for complex investigations. This investigation would likely consist of video footage from the airport, evidence from a laboratory analyzing the substance and interviews with Griner, customs officials and airport security.
There is also a possibility that Griner’s case never reaches a trial. Before the case file is complete, she could opt to seek a pretrial cooperation agreement, a Russian equivalent of entering a plea bargain. A judge has the discretion to give her a reduced sentence or release her entirely.
If the investigation is completed, the case file would be turned over to the prosecution and defense, and it would proceed to a trial heard by a judge. A trial in Russia is a paper-driven affair, based primarily on the case file, which is why lawyers following the investigation expect it could be as short as one day.
“The case file is the center of the trial,” said Jeffrey Kahn, a professor at Southern Methodist University who specializes in Russian law.
Defense attorneys are required to familiarize themselves with the case file before a trial, said Tom Firestone, a former resident legal adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
That would be a chance for Griner’s legal team to engage with what they see as the weak points, attempt to amend the case file or argue that charges should be dropped. They could dispute the quantity of drugs calculated and seek a separate expert report, he said.
“You want the most favorable case file, or the least damaging to the defendant, as possible,” Firestone said.
The legal process lasted six months from start to finish for Naama Issachar, the Israeli with U.S. citizenship who was flying back to Tel Aviv after a yoga trip to India with a connection in Moscow, where she was arrested on her layover and charged with drug smuggling with less than 10 grams of marijuana in her luggage. She was detained in April 2019, convicted in October and sentenced to more than seven years in prison. Her appeal was rejected by a panel of judges that December.
But she was pardoned in January 2020 on “humanitarian principles,” according to the Kremlin, after rounds of delicate negotiations and personal meetings between Putin, Israeli Prime Minister
and Issachar’s mother.
Issachar’s ordeal was a painful reminder that cases that appear to the outside world like misunderstandings can play very differently inside Russia.
Griner’s investigation may be simple on the merits, Russian legal experts say, but the remarkable circumstances of her case leaves it open to political interference.
Several weeks passed before the public found out that one of the world’s best women’s basketball players was in custody on Russian soil. Griner was arrested on Feb. 17, but her detention was kept a secret until March 5, when Russian authorities released the news and her mug shot appeared on state television.
Griner’s family, agent, NBA and WNBA officials and others kept quiet during that time and have issued only brief statements this week.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson said Thursday that “we are aware of and closely engaged on this case,” but “due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment at this time.”
Griner’s situation has also drawn the attention of members of Congress, including Rep. Colin Allred (D., Texas), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who said that de-escalating the case to a purely legal matter is her best hope for now.
“We’re trying to keep this in the legal framework, in the legal channels and to avoid this becoming a political issue at this point,” he said.
—Mauro Orru contributed to this article.
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