Using our tactics against us

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner speaks with her lawyers at a court room prior to a hearing in the Khimki district court, just outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, July 15, 2022. Griner was arrested in February at the Russian capital’s Sheremetyevo Airport when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She has been jailed since then, facing up to 10 years in prison if convicted. (AP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov)

This is outrageous, and yet:

A Russian court on Thursday found the American basketball star Brittney Griner guilty of an attempt to smuggle illegal narcotics into Russia and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony, according to her lawyers. The sentencing ended a closely watched trial that her supporters say made her a pawn in a tense geopolitical showdown over the war in Ukraine.

The guilty verdict, virtually preordained in a legal system in which defendants are rarely acquitted, leaves Ms. Griner’s fate subject to diplomatic wrangling between Russia and the United States. The countries have been discussing the possibility of a prisoner exchange that would bring Ms. Griner home from Russia, where she has been detained since mid-February.

Imagine a system in which only 2% of criminal defendants even get trials and those who do get trials get convicted 95% of the time. It’s pretty easy if you try!

Obviously, a 9 year sentence for possessing relatively small amounts of hash oil is appalling, and in this case politically driven. But it’s sobering to remember that countless Americans have been given similarly or more harsh sentences for the simple possession of drugs, and the only reasons this couldn’t have happened here is that Griner is a celebrity and hash is no longer one of the narcotics American authorities usually seek harsh sentences over. And laws criminalizing relatively ordinary and consensual behavior are particularly open to abuse and selective prosecution.

Putin should be harshly criticized for this, and I hope a prisoner swap can be arranged. But think of the Americans serving life sentences for possessing a half kilogram of cocaine too.

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