The trial of basketball player Brittney Griner begins in Moscow

Jim Heintz, The Associated Press

MOSCOW — Star basketball player Brittney Griner appeared in Moscow Region Court for trial on Friday, about four and a half months after she was arrested for possession of cannabis at an airport while traveling to play for a team. Russian.

Griner was apprehended in February at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. Police revealed she was carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil. The Phoenix Mercury center and two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale drug trafficking.

Less than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted and, unlike the United States, acquittals can be overturned.

Brittney Griner, 31, was escorted into the courtroom in the Moscow suburb of Khimki while handcuffed. At a closed-door preliminary hearing on Monday in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, Griner’s detention was extended for another six months, until December 20.

According to the state news agency RIA-Novosti, two witnesses were questioned by the prosecution: an airport customs officer, who spoke in open court, and an unidentified witness behind closed doors. The trial was then adjourned when two other witnesses failed to appear, and the next session was set for July 7.

Griner’s attorney, Alexander Boykov, told reporters outside the court that he wouldn’t want to talk about the details of the case and the charges or comment on his position on it, « because it’s too early for that. »

The athlete’s detention and trial come amid strained Moscow-Washington relations. Griner was arrested less than a week before Russia sent its troops to Ukraine, adding to already high tensions between the two countries.

The invasion led to sweeping sanctions imposed by the United States, and Russia denounced the United States for sending weapons to Ukraine.

Elizabeth Rood, U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Moscow, was in court and said she spoke with Griner, who is « doing as well as he can in these difficult circumstances. »

« The Russian Federation wrongfully detained Brittney Griner, » Rood said. The practice of unjustified detention is unacceptable wherever it occurs and poses a threat to the safety of anyone traveling, working and living abroad.”

She stressed that the US government 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 prohibited drugs containing narcotics, » Peskov told reporters on Friday.

“Given what I said, it cannot be politically motivated,” he added.

Exchange of prisoners envisaged

Griner supporters kept a low profile hoping for a quiet resolution until May, when the State Department reclassified the young woman as wrongfully detained and handed oversight of her case to its presidential envoy. special for hostage cases – effectively the chief negotiator for the US government.

“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,” Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said Monday.

The trainer hoped Mr 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 has repeatedly shared speculation that she could be traded for an arms dealer, Russian Viktor Bout nicknamed « the dealer of death », who is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to kill American citizens and aiding a terrorist organization.

Russia has been pushing for Mr. Bout’s release for years. But the stark difference between Griner’s case – which involves alleged possession of the vape cartridges containing cannabis oil – and Mr. Bout’s global trafficking in deadly weapons could make such an exchange hard for states to digest. -United.

Others have suggested the player could be traded along with Paul Whelan, a former Marine and security director who is serving a 16-year sentence for an espionage conviction that the United States has repeatedly described as a set up.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on CNN on Sunday that a joint trade of Griner and Whelan for Viktor Bout was being considered.

« As a general proposition … I have no higher priority than to ensure that Americans who are illegally detained in one way or another around the world return home, » he said. declared. However, he specified that he could not comment « in detail on what we are doing, except to say that it is an absolute priority ».

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