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American basketball player Brittney Griner, tried in Russia for drug trafficking, is not the only foreigner imprisoned by Moscow in difficult conditions. Is Russia building up a pool of international prisoners to trade as diplomatic pawns?
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 they 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 United States, many commentators see the detention of the 31-year-old champion as a political maneuver by Russia and describe as a “show trial”, the hearing of Brittney Griner before the court of Khimki, in the suburbs of Moscow since the 1is July. A trial during which the American star pleaded guilty, Thursday, July 7, to drug smuggling. She faces up to ten years in prison.
“This is a time of heightened tension between Russia and the United States,” said Ben Noble, a professor at University College London and a specialist in Russian politics. “Brittney Griner’s detention 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 terrified of staying here forever,” wrote Brittney Griner in a letter to US President Joe Biden on July 4, after already spending five months behind bars. “Please don’t forget me and the other American detainees. Do whatever you can to bring us home.”
The head of the american diplomacy, Antony Blinken, replied on Twitter that the United States will know “no respite” until the basketball champion and “all other Americans wrongfully detained” have not been released.
.@USEmbRu Officials attended Brittney Griner’s trial again today and presented her with a letter from President Biden. We will not back down until Brittney, Paul Whelan and all the other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones.
– Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) July 7, 2022
As with other prisoners, Brittney Griner’s conditions of detention are harsh: overcrowded cells, poor beds, limited showers and shared toilets. But the ordeal does not stop there. In most cases, hope for a fair trial is dim, said Natalia Prilutskaya, Amnesty International’s Russia researcher.
After the trial, those found guilty are sent to penal colonies where conditions are not much better – forced labour, minimal infrastructure and lack of medical care are commonplace.
Two Americans, four Britons and a Moroccan
Brittney Griner is not the only foreign inmate in this case. Former US Marine Paul Whelan, imprisoned in Russia since 2018, is currently serving a 16-year sentence for espionage – 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 have been imprisoned after they were captured on Ukrainian soil and convicted by Russian courts of having fought as mercenaries. Three of them were sentenced to death.
It is difficult to know the precise conditions of detention of these foreigners. “There are penal colonies where foreign nationals are detained in probably more flexible conditions, but not necessarily,” said Natalia Prilutskaya. “Especially if the authorities want to put pressure on a particular detainee 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 a particularly valuable prisoner, for whom the United States could pay the price in order to repatriate her. “She may well be seen by Russian political leaders as a possible candidate for a prisoner exchange, including against Russian national Viktor Bout, a convicted arms trafficker 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, painstaking work.”
That may be Brittney Griner and the other inmates’ only hope today, but it will take a lot of patience, even as the White House pledged on July 5 to do “all it can” to secure the release of the basketball player and Paul Whelan.
According to Ben Noble, it is not certain that the Russian authorities intend to arrest other foreign nationals for political purposes, but in any case, trips to Russia are no longer legion. “Brittney Griner’s case may well deter foreign nationals from setting foot on Russian soil, lest they suffer the same fate,” he said.
This article was adapted from English by Bahar Makooi. Click here to find the original text.