Two-time US basketball Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner was on Friday in a court near Moscow on charges of drug smuggling, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
Griner, 31, a Phoenix Mercury player playing in Russia during the WNBA off-season, was arrested at a Moscow airport on February 17, a week before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Griner’s supporters and US officials say she is wrongly imprisoned and have called for her release amid growing fears she is being used as a political pawn amid rising tensions between Russia and the US.
During the trial, a prosecutor accused Griner of smuggling less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage.
“Being sufficiently aware that the transport of narcotics is not permitted … no later than February 17, 2022 at an unspecified location in unspecified circumstances by an unidentified person.” [Griner] bought two cartridges for personal use, containing 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil, a total of 0.702 grams,” the prosecutor said in the hall of the Khimki City Court, according to a TASS reporter.
Prosecutors argue that Griner intended to import the drugs into Russian territory, packing the banned substances in a backpack and suitcase, according to TASS. Cannabis oil is controlled in Russia and classified as a narcotic.
The second hearing of the trial will take place on July 7th.
Some have speculated that Griner could be released in a prisoner swap, but over the weekend US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declined to comment on the matter.
Griner’s attorneys, Alexander Boykov and Maria Blagovolina, said Friday they were not aware of any plans to swap Griner for a Russian prisoner held in the United States.
“Unfortunately, we have no information about this,” said the lawyers during an impromptu press conference.
During the hearing, an employee of Sheremetyevo Airport Customs was one of the two witnesses, the lawyers said. He was questioned about the circumstances of Griner’s detention and personal search, the lawyers said, adding that they could not disclose any of the information he revealed during testimony.
When asked why Griner was refusing to comment on the allegations in court, the attorneys said, “She has the right to do so later.
US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires Elizabeth Rood, who attended Friday’s hearing, reiterated that Griner was “wrongfully detained,” adding that “the practice of wrongful detention is unacceptable wherever it occurs, and a poses a threat to the safety of all who travel, work and live abroad.”
She spoke to Griner in the courtroom. “She is doing as well as can be expected in these trying circumstances and has asked me to convey to her that she is in good spirits and keeping up the faith,” Rood said.
“The US government is working hard at the highest level to bring Brittney and all wrongfully detained US citizens home,” she added.
Griner’s detention, which has been repeatedly extended, has sparked a wave of support from dozens of organizations across the US, which have joined Griner’s wife, Cherelle, in urging President Joe Biden to strike an exchange deal with Russian authorities to release Griner and her to bring home safely as soon as possible.
Speaking to CNN on Thursday, Cherelle Griner pleaded with US officials to do more to secure her wife’s release.
“It’s really, really difficult. This is not a situation where rhetoric matches action,” she said. “Unfortunately, I have to push people to make sure the things they tell me are in line with their actions and that’s why balancing it was the hardest part because I can’t let go. It’s been over 130 days and BG still isn’t back.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said during a conference call with reporters on Friday that the case was not politically motivated.
While the Kremlin cannot comment on the course of the trial, Peskov said, stressing Griner was arrested after transporting “illegal drugs containing narcotics,” which is a criminal offense under Russian law.
“Based on what I said, her arrest cannot be politically motivated,” Peskov added.
Griner was named an honorary starter for the WNBA All-Star Game last week, with the All-Star Game scheduled to take place in Chicago on July 10th. Her confinement is still “tough on our team,” Phoenix Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard told reporters ahead of Monday’s team’s game against Indiana Fever.
She expressed hope that Griner will return home soon and that President Biden will “take the steps to ensure she comes home.”