After more than four months of detention in a Russian penal colony outside of Moscow, WNBA star Brittney Griner sent a letter to the White House entreating the Biden administration to prioritize the timely release of herself and fellow American detainees, according to Reuters.

“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” she writes.

Griner, a two-time gold medal-winning basketball player, was taken into custody on Feb. 17 at Sheremetyevo International Airport “accused of carrying into the country vape cartridges with traces — 0.7 grams, the prosecutor said — of cannabis oil,” per The New York Times.

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The proceedings are much more serious than is typical, as “a foreigner caught with a small amount would usually face no more than a month in jail, a fine and deportation,” according to the NYT.

TASS, the Russian news outlet, reports Griner is being accused of “drug smuggling” in a trial that started July 1. According to the report, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergei Ryabkov is interested in a potential prisoner trade for Viktor Bout, the notorious arms dealer.

Griner wrongfully detained

ESPN first reported in March that the State Department changed the classification of Griner’s imprisonment to “wrongfully detained,” though they did not give details as to how the conclusion was reached.

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After this change, Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs began working to secure the basketball player’s release. Also signifying a shift in White House strategy, “former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has worked privately for years as an international hostage negotiator, agreed to work on Griner’s case.”

Russia’s judicial process

The judicial process in Russia mirrors the common law systems of the West, but with important distinctions. In an interview with The New York Times, William Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute and Russian law expert, said “there’s no real idea or expectation that the defendant could be innocent. There’s no presumption of innocence, really.”

Griner’s lawyer said the trial might last up to two months. Speaking to The New York Times, Danielle Gilbert, an assistant professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, said “Hostage diplomacy relies on the pretense of law to feign a legitimate process. The Russian government is depending on Americans’ own respect for the rule of law to mask their intention to use Griner for leverage.”

U.S. political prisoners in Russia

Axios reports that in 2019, Israeli-American Naama Issachar was used as a bargaining chip in an attempted prisoner swap deal after 9 grams of cannabis was found in her luggage.

She was pardoned after 10 months, caught in the middle of complex relations between Israel, the U.S. and Russia. Issachar “cried when she heard about Ms. Griner’s case, telling her: ‘I know what she’s going through now,’” according to The New York Times.

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According to NPR, Trevor Reed, a Marine veteran, was wrongfully detained for 985 days for assaulting a Russian police officer. The trial was a “theater of the absurd” according to John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Reed, with “rapidly declining health,” was exchanged in April for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko. Yaroshenko was convicted of “conspiring to import more than $100 million worth of cocaine into the United States” in 2011.

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Former Marine Paul Whelan was detained for “espionage” in December 2018. He was left out of the swap for Reed, and is still being held in Russia. Whelan could potentially benefit from the increased attention Griner brings to detainees in Russia, according to The Associated Press.

In the letter to Biden, Griner writes “I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home.”

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