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Brittney Griner trial in Russia raises concern

American arrested for legitimate reasons in Russia or hostage of a diplomatic war? The drug trafficking and smuggling trial of star basketball player Brittney Griner is due to open this Friday near Moscow. The sequel could reveal how much the athlete risks becoming a bargaining chip between the two powers.

Posted at 12:00 a.m.

Janie Gosselin

Janie Gosselin
The Press

“It’s not looking good,” comments William Pomeranz, a specialist in Russian law and acting director of the Kennan Institute, attached to the American think tank Wilson Center, joined by The Press on the phone. “It’s almost impossible to get an acquittal [dans le système criminel russe]and this trial has political ramifications as well”, adds the man who practiced two years in Russia, in commercial and international law.

The star of the Phoenix Mercury, a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) team, was arrested days before the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February at an airport near Moscow. According to the Russian authorities, she would have had in her possession “vaporizers and a liquid with a particular smell” of cannabis oil.

The 31-year-old double Olympic gold medalist faces a 5 to 10 year prison sentence if found guilty.

“Russia is one of the countries which has a policy of zero tolerance with regard to narcotics,” underlines William E. Butler, professor of law at the State University of Pennsylvania, joined by The Press on the phone. Every year, 80,000 or 90,000 people have to be sentenced in Russia for drug-related offences. It’s not uncommon. »

Money change

The fear is that the case of Mme Griner could be dealt with not on the basis of the accumulated evidence, but on his value in a possible prisoner exchange.

“At this stage, the facts concerning his case are no longer considered from the same angle,” notes Maria Popova, associate professor at McGill University. Since she’s American, it’s not really relevant whether she had drugs or not. The question is whether Russia wants to trade him for someone. »

In April, an ex-Marine, Trevor Reed, sentenced to nine years in prison for violence, was exchanged for a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, convicted 12 years ago of drug trafficking in the United States.

Fair trials

In Russia, justice does not have the same independence as in Canada, for example. This does not mean that a fair trial is not possible for common offenses, say the experts. But when it comes to politics, the question becomes more perilous.

“If it has become political, she will be convicted,” said Jeffrey Kahn, professor of law at Southern Methodist University, joined in Texas. There is no doubt. But if she’s treated like an ordinary person – in other words, if what you’re hearing about the Kremlin’s interest or whatever isn’t true – I think you could expect a trial. just. »

The problem is that there have been so many cases of dissidents, activists, opponents of the regime who have not had fair trials that it sows a seed of mistrust – the size of a grapefruit – in the head of observers from all over the world.

Jeffrey Kahn, Southern Methodist University law professor

He is concerned about the information received so far, in particular about his detention while awaiting trial – a judge refused house arrest. The time devoted to the investigation, despite the evidence seeming quite circumscribed, and the statement of Mr.me Griner on a trial that could last up to two months also send worrying signals.

“We don’t know if it’s a political trial,” he says. But evidence is beginning to accumulate. »

An example… or not

Last May, the US State Department said the athlete was wrongfully detained, without explaining the reasons supporting that conclusion. His file was therefore transferred to the special envoy of the United States responsible for those taken hostage.

Mr. Butler, he recalls that we still know very little about the defense of the athlete, who has not spoken.

I don’t see why Russia would want to make an example of it. The current state of political relations between the states does not help, but I do not see that necessarily as a decisive factor.

William E. Butler, Pennsylvania State University law professor

Like many WNBA athletes, Brittney Griner took advantage of the break between two seasons to play abroad. She had been part of the UMMC Yekaterinburg team in Russia since 2014.

An online petition calling for his return to the United States had racked up more than 288,000 signatures by Thursday afternoon.

With Agence France-Presse

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