WNBA star Brittney Griner sentenced to 9 years in Russian penal colony

U.S. women's basketball star Brittney Griner now faces 9 years in a Russian prison. She was convicted Thursday in a Russian court on drug charges for having cannabis oil in her luggage last February as she arrived in Moscow. The Biden administration had sharply criticized her arrest and condemned the verdict. Journalist Julia Ioffe, a founding partner at Puck News, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's look at what Brittney Griner could be facing, even as the U.S. government continues to negotiate for her release in a prisoner swap.

    The basketball star was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. That happened after Griner told a Russian court that she — quote — "made an honest mistake." Her defense team had tried to persuade the judge to be lenient, saying Griner did not intend to break Russian law deliberately.

    Many WNBA players posted messages of solidarity, and she has been widely seen as caught up in the politics of the moment. But now there are tough choices ahead.

    Journalist Julia Ioffe follows this and the Russian system closely. She's the founding partner of Puck News, and she joins me now.

    Julia Ioffe, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So, nine years in a prison, in a penal colony, for possession of a small amount of cannabis oil. How does this sentence, do you think, compare to, say, what a Russian citizen or an ordinary foreigner would have received?

  • Julia Ioffe, Washington Correspondent, Puck News:

    Well, it's hard to say because, right now, an American would get a lot.

    In fact, earlier this summer, just a couple of months ago, an American teacher who used to work at the American Embassy, Marc Fogel, was sentenced to 14 years for possession of cannabis, even though he too had a medical marijuana prescription, which, of course, is meaningless in the Russian system, which is a zero tolerance country.

    And, of course, this isn't about marijuana, and this isn't about medical marijuana. This is about the fact that Russia sees itself not as being — as being at war with the U.S. in Ukraine right now. And it is basically kidnapping American citizens and using them as pawns to get concessions out of the U.S.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, the fact that she — I mean, she tried, apparently, to play it straight. She said it was a mistake. She said — she apologized for what had happened.

    But that didn't seem to have any bearing on the sentence that she received.

  • Julia Ioffe:

    Even if we disregard the situation around her — Russia invaded Ukraine just a week after — exactly a week after she was arrested.

    But, even if we set that aside, if even if we set aside the fact that the relations between Washington and Moscow completely fell apart in the week after she was arrested, just the arrest for drug possession basically presupposes a guilty verdict. It doesn't matter what she said in court, whether she pled guilty or not guilty, how she explained it, what kind of witnesses she brought.

    She would have been found guilty no matter what. The question is just how long would the sentence be that the prosecutor asked for and what kind of sentence the judge would have handed down. Would it be something — quote, unquote — "light," like a five-year, say, parole, probation sentence, or something lenient, like — or six or seven years in a penal colony?

    It's worth noting that the most common prison sentence for Russian women, most Russian women in penal colonies in Russia are there for drug possession.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We don't know what to make of that.

    But what do you think the prospects are, Julia Ioffe, that there — there was all this talk last week about a potential prisoner swap for Brittney Griner and another American being held in Russia, Paul Whelan, for Viktor Bout, a notorious arms dealer being held in the United States.

    What do you think the prospects are for something like that coming together?

  • Julia Ioffe:

    Well, there's two things going on.

    The first thing is that, even though Paul Whelan was framed with a memory card, essentially, and Brittney Griner was arrested with a small amount of cannabis oil, and they're being potentially traded for an arms dealer who traded arms at a massive scale internationally, which you would think would be still a lopsided trade in Russia's favor, the Russians are saying, uh-uh, let's do a two-for-two trade. Otherwise, it doesn't count.

    And they're trying to offer things that are not serious. They're now throwing into the equation an elite FSB officer who was convicted in Germany of assassinating somebody in a German park in broad daylight. So, not only is he a murderer, but he's in German custody. And it's not — he's not somebody that the U.S. can even hand over. He's not in U.S. custody.

    From what my sources in the Biden administration tell me, though, the talks are not going well. The Russians don't seem eager to play ball. And they seem to be just kind of dragging their feet and seeing how much they can get out of the Biden administration.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, hardly any equivalence, if there were to be a swap.

    Julia Ioffe, what does she face, nine years in a — what — a penal colony. What kind of imprisonment are we talking about?

  • Julia Ioffe:

    In Russia, people are in prison just for their pretrial detention and while their case is being appealed, and then they're transferred to a penal colony.

    And many of these penal colonies are built on sites where gulag camps were. And they still look like camps. There's a lot of outdoor time. They're doing a lot of work. A lot of women — women's colonies, they're sewing, for example, uniforms for state agencies. And the heads of these prison colonies make a lot of money off essentially the slave labor of the women in these camps.

    These camps are often quite violent and have very elaborate hierarchies. There's a lot of sexual violence from the guards in these camps. And my fear is that Brittney Griner, as a very tall American and Black woman, really sticks out. She doesn't speak Russian.

    And unless somebody there in the colony speaks English and takes her under their wing, she's going to have a really tough time navigating an already very harsh terrain.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very difficult to even think about that.

    Julia Ioffe, thank you very much for joining us.

  • Julia Ioffe:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment