Brittney Griner trial begins in Russian court
American basketball star Brittney Griner went on trial 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 unfolded in the middle of strained relations between Moscow and Washington.
Center Phoenix Mercury and two-time US Olympic gold medalist was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after police said she was carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale drug smuggling.
Griner, 31, was escorted into the courtroom in the Moscow suburb of Khimki while handcuffed and wearing a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt. At a preliminary hearing behind closed doors on Monday, his detention was extended for another six months, until December 20.
Two witnesses were questioned by the prosecution: a customs officer from the airport, who spoke in open court, and an unidentified witness in camera. according to the state news agency RIA-Novosti. The trial was then adjourned, he added, when two other witnesses failed to appear, and the next session was set for July 7.
Alexander Boykov, a lawyer for Griner, told reporters outside the court that « I wouldn’t want to talk about the details of the case and the charges and comment on our position on it because it’s too early for that. »
Less than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted and, unlike US courts, acquittals can be overturned.
His case comes at an extraordinarily low point in Moscow-Washington relations. Griner was arrested less than a week before Russia sent troops to 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.
Elizabeth Rood, US Charge d’Affaires in Moscow, was in court and said she spoke with Griner, who « is doing as well as can be 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 all who travel, work and live abroad. »
She said the US government, at its highest levels, is « working hard to bring Brittney and all wrongfully detained US nationals home to safety. »
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 banned drugs containing narcotic substances, » Peskov told reporters. “Given what I said, it cannot be politically motivated,” he added.
Griner supporters had kept a low profile in hopes of 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 cases – effectively the chief negotiator for the US government.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has urged President Joe Biden to secure her release, calling her a « political pawn. »
« It was good to see her in some of these images, but it’s hard. 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.
The coach hoped Biden would « take the necessary steps to make sure she comes home. »
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 have repeatedly speculated that she 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 on an espionage conviction the United States has repeatedly described as a configuration.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, when asked on CNN on Sunday whether a joint trade of Griner and Whelan for Bout was being considered, dodged the question.
“As a general rule, I have no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are illegally detained in one way or another around the world get home,” he said. But he said he couldn’t comment « in detail on what we’re doing except to say it’s a top priority ».