KHIMKI, RUSSIA – The trial of Brittney Griner, a WNBA star who has been detained in Russia for more than four months on suspicion of drugs, began Friday with sharing new details about the case.
Officials from the US embassy are on hand for the trial. Access to the press is tightly controlled, but a mob of journalists gathered to catch a glimpse of Griner, handcuffed and wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, being escorted by guards into the courtroom of the Khimki City Court , just outside Moscow.
At Friday’s hearing, Griner was not asked to declare her innocence or guilt. That phase of the legal process comes later.
Prosecutor Says Griner Imported Two Hash Cartridges
Griner was arrested on February 17 after authorities at an airport near Moscow allegedly found cartridges for cannabis vape in her luggage. She could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of drug smuggling.
During Friday’s court hearing, prosecutors opened up their case against Griner.
Russia’s state news agency Tass, which has an associate in court, reported that the indictment alleges that, before traveling to Russia in February, Griner “purchased two cartridges for personal use, containing 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil.”
A security inspection reportedly found the cartridges in the basketball star’s luggage when she arrived on a flight from New York to Sheremetyevo International Airport in Khimki.
Two witnesses testified for the prosecution — customs officers working at the airport when Griner’s bags were inspected, Griner’s lawyer Alexander Boikov told NPR. Prosecutors are likely to have four hearings before the defense’s turn, he said.
As for Griner’s mentality at the moment, Boikov said she’s “a little concerned” about the trial and the potential for jail time — “but she’s a tough lady and I think she’ll make it.”
The next hearing is scheduled for July 7. A Russian judge has ordered Griner to be detained for the duration of her trial.
Griner has been playing basketball in Russia for years
Griner, 31, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and star center with the Phoenix Mercury. Her ordeal began a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, and her detention has been extended several times. A request for house arrest was also rejected.
Like many WNBA players, Griner earns far more than her WNBA salary by playing abroad during the offseason. She has played for years for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, which is owned by oligarch Iskander Makhmudov. The team has a longstanding relationship with the Mercury.
“They know who they have,” Terri Jackson, executive director of the union that represents WNBA players, told NPR, noting Griner’s award-winning career, both in the US and Russia.
“She’s a hero in their country. I mean, they love women’s basketball,” Jackson said. “They take their championships very seriously. And let’s be clear, she’s given them more than a few.”
As Griner’s supporters ask for her release, the WNBA marks her absence from the current season by embellishing her initials and number – BG42 – on the home courts of its 12 teams.
US says Griner is being held as a bargaining chip
After Friday’s hearing, U.S. deputy mission chief Elizabeth Rood said she had spoken with Griner in court.
“She asked me to convey that she is in a good mood and persevering in the faith,” said Rood.
In early May, the Biden administration stated that Griner had been wrongly detained by the Russian government, indicating that the US would become aggressive in pursuing her return home. The US believes that Putin’s regime ordered Griner’s arrest so that it could use her as leverage.
“Unjust detention as a medium of exchange threatens the security of anyone traveling and living abroad,” said US Ambassador to Russia John J. Sullivan. said in May. He and other US officials have said their top priority is to help Griner and other civilians detained in Russia.
Jackson says she wants something different from the Biden administration.
“We want President Biden, our elected official, to have a meeting, a sit-down, a face-to-face with Cherelle Griner, BG’s wife. Because you know what? She deserves that.”
Kremlin denies playing politics in Griner’s case
The Kremlin maintains that the case is not politically motivated. Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that he would not comment on an pending lawsuit, but he then spoke about what he said are the facts of the case.
“I can only state the facts,” said Peskov, who said Griner was detained “with banned compounds containing narcotics.” He added: “Only the court can do anything in terms of pronouncing any verdicts.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently confirmed its level 4 advice against travel to Russia. Aside from the disruptions linked to the country’s invasion of Ukraine, Americans are at risk in Russia, the agency said.
US citizens — everyone from current and former government and military personnel to civilians — “have been questioned and threatened without cause by Russian officials, and could be subject to intimidation, assault and extortion,” the advisory said.
“Russian security agencies have arrested US citizens on false charges, sought out US citizens in Russia … denied them fair and transparent treatment and sentenced them in secret trials and/or without providing credible evidence,” it adds.
Maynes reported from Russia. Chappell reported from Washington, DC