MOSCOW (AP) – American basketball star Brittney Griner was put on trial on Friday, 4 1/2 months after her arrest for possession of cannabis oil, when she returned to play for a Russian team in a case unfolding amid strained relations between Moscow and Washington.
The Phoenix Mercury Center and the two-time US Olympic gold medalist was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after police said she was carrying vape canisters containing cannabis oil. If convicted of large-scale drug trafficking, she faces up to ten years in prison.
Griner, 31, was escorted to the courtroom in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, handcuffed and wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. At a preliminary hearing closed to the public On Monday, her detention was extended by a further six months to December 20.
Two witnesses were questioned by prosecutors: an airport customs officer, who spoke in open court, and an unidentified witness in a closed session. according to the state news agency RIA-Novosti. The trial was then adjourned, it said, when two more witnesses failed to appear, and the next hearing was set for July 7.
Alexander Boykov, a lawyer for Griner, told reporters in court, “I don’t want to go into 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.
Her case hits 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 US then imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow, and Russia condemned the US for supplying arms to Ukraine.
Elizabeth Rood, US chief executive in Moscow, was in court and said she spoke to Griner, who is “doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances.”
“The Russian Federation wrongly arrested Brittney Griner,” Rood said. “The practice of unlawful 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 is “working hard at the highest level to bring Brittney and all wrongfully detained US citizens home safely.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday denied that politics played a role in Griner’s detention and prosecution.
“The fact is that the famous athlete was arrested in possession of banned drugs containing narcotics,” Peskov told reporters. “Considering what I said, it can’t be politically motivated,” he added.
Griner’s supporters had held off hoping for a quiet resolution until May, when the State Department reclassified them as wrongly imprisoned and assigned oversight of their case to the President’s special envoy for hostage affairs – effectively the US government’s chief negotiator.
Griner’s wife Cherellehas 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 alongside Paul Whelana former Navy and Security director 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 that Americans who are being held illegally 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”.