American basketball star Brittney Griner was tried in Russia on Friday, 4 and a half months after she was arrested for possession of cannabis oil while returning to play for a Russian team, in a case that took place in amid strained relations between Moscow and Washington.
The first session of the trial, which was adjourned until Thursday, offered the most extensive public interaction between Griner and reporters since center Phoenix Mercury and the two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist were arrested in February in Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow.
Griner, 31, was escorted into the courtroom in the Moscow suburb of Khimki as he was handcuffed, carrying a water bottle and what appeared to be a magazine, and wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt.
Police said she was carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil while being detained at the airport. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale drug smuggling.
The state-run Tass news agency quoted Griner as saying in court that she understood the charges against her. Asked by the judge if she wanted to enter a plea, Griner replied, “At this time, no, your honor. At a later date,” according to Mediazona, an independent Russian news site known for its coverage of high-profile court cases.
Less than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted and, unlike US courts, acquittals can be overturned.
Two witnesses were questioned by the prosecution: a customs officer at the airport, who spoke in open court, and an unidentified witness behind closed doors, according to the Russian news agency RIA-Novosti. The trial was later adjourned, the agency said, because two other witnesses failed to appear.
Alexander Boykov, a lawyer for Griner, said in court that he did not wish to comment “on the details of the case and the charges” because it was too early to do so.
Boykov also told RIA-Novosti that she was exercising and walking around the detention area. Russian website Business FM said Griner, who sometimes smiled at reporters, said she wished she could practice more and struggled because she couldn’t understand Russian. Besides Mercury of the WNBA, she played in Russia for UMMC Ekaterinburg.
Elizabeth Rood, US Charge d’Affaires in Moscow, was in court and said she spoke with Griner, who is “doing as well as expected in these difficult circumstances.”
“The Russian Federation wrongfully detained Brittney Griner,” Rood said. “The practice of wrongful detention is unacceptable wherever it occurs and poses a threat to the safety of anyone traveling, working and living abroad.”
She said the US government, at its highest levels, was “working hard to bring Brittney and all wrongfully detained US nationals home to safety”.
At a preliminary closed hearing on Monday, Griner’s detention was extended for six months, until December 20.
His case comes at an extraordinarily low point in US-Russian relations. Griner was arrested less than a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, adding to already high tensions between the two countries. The United States then imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow and Russia denounced the United States for sending arms to Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday denied that politics played a role in Griner’s detention and prosecution.
“The facts are that the famous athlete was detained in possession of prohibited drugs containing narcotics,” Peskov told reporters. “Given what I said, it cannot be politically motivated.”
Griner supporters had kept a low profile hoping for a quiet resolution until May, when the State Department reclassified her as wrongfully detained and handed oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy. for Hostage Affairs, who is actually the U.S. government’s chief hostage negotiator. .
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Griner’s wife, Cherelle, urged President Biden to secure her release, calling her a “political pawn.”
“It was good to see her in some of these images, but it’s difficult. Each time it’s a reminder that their teammate, their friend, is wrongfully imprisoned in another country,” the official said on Monday. Phoenix Mercury trainer, Vanessa Nygaard.
Griner supporters have encouraged a prisoner exchange like the one in April that brought home Navy veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of a drug trafficking conspiracy.
Russian media has repeatedly speculated that Griner could be traded for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed ‘the dealer of death’, who is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill citizens. Americans and aiding a terrorist organization. .
Russia has been agitating for years for Bout’s release. But the wide disconnect between Griner’s case — which involves the alleged possession of vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil — and Bout’s global dealings in lethal weapons could make such an exchange unpleasant in the United States.
Others have suggested she could be traded in tandem with Paul Whelan, a former naval and security director serving a 16-year sentence for espionage that the United States has repeatedly described as a setup.