Officials in Russia have confirmed that they are “ready” to discuss a prisoner exchange with the White House for queer US basketballer Brittney Griner. The statement comes less than 24 hours after the athlete was sentenced to nine years in Russian prison for narcotics possession and smuggling.
“We are ready to discuss this subject, but only within the framework of the [communication] channel established by presidents Putin and Biden,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a press conference in Cambodia.
“If the Americans decide to once again resort to public diplomacy… that is their business and I would even say that it is their problem,” he added.
Earlier this week, it emerged that the US has already made what Secretary of State Antony Blinken described as a “substantial offer” to secure the release of American prisoners in Russia including Griner and ex-Marine Paul Whelan. Joe Biden allegedly offered the return of Viktor Bout, a dangerous Russian arms dealer known as ‘the Merchant of Death’. Bout was arrested in 2008 on suspicion of smuggling weapons to Colombian revolutionaries, and was then extradited to the US where he is currently serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy and terrorism.
When this news broke on August 2, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskow told Moscow press that he was surprised that US officials had spoken about the proposal, adding: “So far there are no agreements in this area, when discussing such topics, you don’t conduct information attacks.”
Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, also weighed in on the matter at the time, explaining: “From a legal point of view, an exchange is only possible after a court verdict.”
Free Brittney Griner, but don’t stop there… free EVERY person rotting in an American jail for a nonviolent cannabis charge. This travesty has gone on long enough.
— Omar Rivero (@OmarRiverosays) August 4, 2022
The Olympian was first detained in February of this year after bringing cannabis-infused vape cartridges into the country. The 31 year-old has been prescribed medical use of the drug in her home nation to treat chronic injury pain, however, the substance is not legal under Russian Law.
The Women’s NBA champion was entering the country to play club basketball with UMMC Ekaterinburg during off-season in the US, a move commonly made by American stars seeking extra pay.
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued the following statement regarding Brittney Griner: pic.twitter.com/FMQZsHBDVv
— NBA (@NBA) August 4, 2022
Although having pled guilty, Griner maintained throughout the trial that it was “an honest mistake”, and her lawyer continued to insist that “by indiscretion, in a hurry, she packed her suitcase and did not pay attention to the fact that substances allowed for use in the United States ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation.” Blagovolina added that the two-time Olympic gold medalist was “an icon for many people” and the amount of drugs brought in by the athlete was “just over” the allowed amount. Along with her sentence, Griner also received a fine of 1 million roubles (€15,652).
Griner’s defence team said it would appeal the verdict and commented that the court “completely ignored all the evidence of the defence, and most importantly, the guilty plea”.
Biden described the punishment as “unacceptable” and called on Russia to release Griner immediately “so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates”.
He added: “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan [jailed on espionage charges] home safely as soon as possible.”
President Joe Biden released the following statement after a Russian court sentenced Brittney Griner to nine years in prison: pic.twitter.com/wxDCbaaQBe
— ESPN (@espn) August 4, 2022
After the sentencing, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby urged Russian authorities to accept their proposal, saying “They should have accepted it weeks ago when we first made it.”
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