Brittany Griner, WNBA star, pleaded guilty to bringing marijuana-derived oil cartridges into Russia. She claimed that she did it by accident. This was a significant move as it revealed the strategy of her defense team. It could lead to Griner being released or a prisoner swap with America.
Local media quoted Maria Blagovolina (the Russian lawyer for the basketball player) saying that she hoped for the court's leniency. She was speaking outside a Moscow courthouse. "Considering all of the facts and the character of our client, we believe the admission of guilt should be considered."
A procedural perspective, a pardon or prisoner exchange can only be granted if the person has been convicted. Washington has not requested Griner's release from Moscow until Griner is formally convicted.
Sergey Ryabkov, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister, stated Thursday that there are no formal or procedural grounds to discuss any further steps until Griner's trial is over.
Ryabkov indicated Friday that Russia is interested in Washington's ball -- leaving the Biden administration open to making an offer for a possible swap, if they can reach closed-door negotiations.
Ryabkov stated that "as for any exchange scheme, our position remains the same: this must be done behind closed doors through all available channels."
Ryabkov indicated clearly that Moscow might be interested in negotiating the swap for Viktor Bout (the so-called "Merchant of Death"), a notorious Russian arms dealer who has been held in U.S. custody indefinitely since 2008.
"I don't think any additional activity in the public sphere will help a right, balanced compromise and find the basis to alleviate a lot of our compatriots like Viktor Bout who has health problems [or] such Seleznev and many other," he stated, referring to Roman Seleznev who is currently serving a 27 year sentence in U.S. prison on cyber-fraud charges.
Griner has been repeatedly called "wrongfully Detained" by U.S. officials, a term the Kremlin claimed is not helpful in negotiations.
During an official visit to Indonesia, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated Friday that Griner and Paul Whelan were the top priorities of the Biden administration. Griner was sentenced in Russia to 16 years for espionage.
Paul Whelan's brother, a former Marine detained in Russia, told CBS News that it "absolutely does not bother" him that Brittney Griner, WNBA star, has been receiving more attention than his brother because of "her celebrity has helped raise awareness about Paul’s case." pic.twitter.com/Ot6Yebjx6J
When asked about Ryabkov’s comments suggesting Griner’s trial would need to take place before any movement on a possible prisoner swap could be made, Blinken said that he wasn't going to engage in hypotheticals.
He said, "We'll engage and do everything possible to bring people home as soon as we can."
Griner may still be guilty of the charges even though he has entered a guilty plea. However, it could take weeks or months for the judge in this case to render a verdict. Griner is scheduled to testify at the next hearing on July 14.
Griner may be able to benefit from Griner's admission of guilt in the long-term, since it could lead to a shorter trial than if Griner's legal team was to resist the charges. Trevor Reed, an American pilot, was also released recently in a deal for Konstantin Yaroshenko. Reed had been fighting the charges for almost three years, while he was held in Russian prison. He was then reportedly forced to sign a paper admitting that he was guilty before being released.
Russia has made marijuana possession and use illegal. According to statistics, only a small percentage of criminal cases in Russia end in an acquittal.
Given the current state of relations between Washington, Moscow and Washington, it is possible for negotiations to fail on a possible prisoner swap. If that happens, pleading guilty and asking for mercy by the court could see Griner's sentence reduced.
"We are still in a wait and see position as to how this trial proceeds," William Pomeranz, Washington's acting director of Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, said Thursday to CBS News. He is an expert on Russian law and an expert on the subject.
Pomeranz stated that she believed she pled guilty to mainly be at the mercy of the court and plead for leniency. Pomeranz previously stated to news outlets that this is often the best strategy for dealing with Russia's courts.