MOSCOW – American basketball star Brittney Griner appeared in a Moscow-area court on Friday, some 4 1/2 months after she was arrested for cannabis possession at an airport while she was traveling to play for a Russian team.
Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Police said she was carrying vape canisters of cannabis oil. The Phoenix Mercury Center and two-time US Olympic gold medalist faces 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 in the US, acquittals can be overturned.
At a closed-door preliminary hearing on Monday in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, Griner’s detention was extended by a further six months to December 20.
Photos from The Associated Press, including one of the few close-ups of Griner since her Feb. 17 arrest, showed the 31-year-old handcuffed and looking straight ahead, in contrast to a previous court appearance where she kept her head bowed and covered with a hood.
According to a video shown in Russian media, she declined to answer reporters’ questions in English as she was shown around the courthouse. Russian media later reported that Griner’s lawyers declined to comment on how their client intended to plead.
The athlete’s detention and trial mark an extraordinary low 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 invasion led to sweeping sanctions by the United States, and Russia condemned the US for arms sales to Ukraine.
Amid the tensions, Griner’s supporters held back on hoping for a quiet resolution until May, when the State Department ruled she was wrongly detained and turned oversight of her case to the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs – effectively the US government’s chief negotiator .
Griner’s wife Cherelle has urged President Joe Biden to secure her release, calling her a “political pawn”.
“It was nice to see her in some of these pictures, but it’s hard. Every time she is reminded that her teammate, her boyfriend, is unjustly imprisoned in another country,” Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said Monday.
The coach hoped Biden would “take the steps to make sure she got home.”
Griner’s supporters have sponsored a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought home Navy veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.
Russian news media have repeatedly expressed speculation that she could be swapped out for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Dealer of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence on charges of conspiring to kill US citizens and supporting a terrorist organization was convicted.
Russia has been campaigning for Bout’s release for years. But the wide discrepancy between Griner’s case – which involves alleged possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil – and Bout’s global trade in lethal weapons could make such a swap uncomfortable for the US
Others have suggested she could be traded in tandem with Paul Whelan, a former Navy and Security director who is serving a 16-year sentence on a spying conviction that the United States has repeatedly called fraud.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken dodged the question when asked on CNN on Sunday whether a joint trade between Griner and Whelan for Bout was being considered.
“As a general statement … I have no higher priority than making sure Americans who are illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,” he said. But he said he “can’t comment in detail on what we’re doing other than to say it’s an absolute priority”.
https://nypost.com/2022/07/01/trial-for-us-basketball-star-brittney-griner-begins-in-moscow-area-court/ The trial of US basketball star Brittney Griner begins in a Moscow-area court