LGBTQ groups are condemning a prison sentence handed down by a Russian court against WNBA star Brittney Griner, who became a pawn in a larger global skirmish between the United States and Russia stemming from the latter’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
Griner was found guilty, fined 1 million rubles — or $16,300 in U.S. dollars — and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony for allegedly attempting to smuggle illegal narcotics into Russia after being arrested at an airport back in February for having two vape cartridges containing hashish oil, a drug made from parts of the cannabis plant, in her luggage.
On the advice of her lawyers, Griner, a player for Russian basketball team EMMC Ekaterinburg in the off-season, pleaded guilty to the charge against her, admitting to possessing the cartridges but saying they were left in her luggage as part of an oversight while she was packing in a hurry.
The U.S. State Department has floated the idea of a prisoner swap, in which the United States would release a convicted arms dealer in exchange for Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine and businessman who has been detained since 2018 on espionage charges, but Russian officials have largely been cold to the idea.
The U.S. State Department condemned what it called the “wrongful detention” of Griner and panned the Russian legal system, as well as the Russian government’s “use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns.”
“Nothing about today’s decision changes our determination that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained, and we will continue working to bring Brittney and fellow wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan home,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. “We will also continue to press for fair and transparent treatment for all U.S. citizen detainees in Russia. Russia, and any country engaging in wrongful detention, represents a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad. The United States opposes this practice everywhere.”
LGBTQ groups have previously questioned whether there is a double standard involving Griner, who is both Black and a lesbian, compared to the reaction that might have occurred had a straight male NBA player been unlawfully detained in another country on flimsy charges. Several advocates have also called on the United States to step up its efforts to bring Griner back by any means necessary.
Kierra Johnson, the executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, called Griner’s sentence “excessive and wrong.”
“We have watched for months as Brittney Griner has been used as a political pawn, even as she has made clear that she did not intend to break any laws. Her case has mobilized millions of people — not just fans but anyone concerned with human rights,” Johnson said. “To be clear: Brittney has played for both countries; she has helped build bridges, she is not someone who should be detained for this long on a minor charge. She helped Russia win championship league trophies and she has helped U.S. win Olympics; she is beloved in Russia and in the U.S., where her family wants her to come home.
“We all know the real reason for this trial and the way Russia had handled her detention: their transparent attempt to give themselves legitimacy and threaten the U.S. and other countries they are in conflict with by holding her for as long as necessary and refusing to negotiate any return,” Johnson added. “Brittney Griner has been caught in the middle of the conflict and sanctions imposed on Russia. With tensions between the U.S. and Russia are at the highest they have been in decades we have seen the lives of Brittney and others like Paul Whelan have their futures and lives held on the whim of a government that is using them as leverage to retaliate against sanctions and the international condemnation for their actions.”
The Human Rights Campaign also condemned the Russian government’s actions.
“Over the past several months, the world has watched with growing concern as Brittney Griner — an American hero who is so much more than a WNBA superstar and Olympian — continues to be unlawfully detained in Russia. We join with so many of Brittney’s loved ones — her friends, teammates, and family — in sending her support as she endures this unimaginable hardship, so far from home,” Joni Madison, the interim president of HRC, said in a statement. “Today’s harsh sentencing is merely the latest example of how she is being used as a political pawn — and it has to stop. It is long past time that we bring Brittney home and we support the Biden administration’s efforts to do so.”
The National Black Justice Coalition decried what it sees as a sham trial for Griner, calling the judge’s verdict a “miscarriage of justice” of which Russian authorities should be ashamed.
“Russia targeted Brittney Griner the moment she arrived at their airport to play basketball on their behalf,” Victoria Kirby York, the deputy executive director of NBJC, said in a statement. “Russia broke its customs, procedures, and laws to detain and put her on trial. Russia assigned her a translator that refused to fully and accurately translate what was happening to her or what paperwork she was signing. Then, the Russian government issued outrageous drug smuggling charges that went above and beyond the Russian penal code for what was found in her luggage — 0.7 grams of cannabis oil.
“It has been evident since the beginning that Brittney was being used as a political pawn to be leveraged when needed by the Russian government during its invasion of Ukraine. The judge’s decision today only underscores that the detention and trial were a pretense for hostage diplomacy,” Kirby York added.
Carolyn Wysinger, the president of San Francisco Pride’s Board of Directors, condemned the United States’ bumbling and slow-footed response to Griner’s detention as “deplorable,” and chastised the larger LGBTQ community for being relatively silent when it comes to demanding Griner’s release.
“Black lesbian women are often forgotten by the LGBTQ community, forgotten by the Black community, and used as props by the feminist community. It is sad but not shocking to see that the lives of Black lesbian women are not readily protected, and that the political class continues to ignore the threats that jeopardize the safety of our community,” Wysinger said.
“This story isn’t over just yet. But the fact that so many folks, especially in the LGBTQ community had different things to care about instead of Brittney Griner’s freedom is disappointing. Black Lesbian women show up for way too many people in the LGBTQ community for the silence to be this loud.”
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