American basketball star Brittney Griner was on trial Friday, 4 1/2 months after her arrest, on charges of possession of cannabis oil while returning to play for a Russian team, in a case that took place amid tense relations between Moscow and Washington.
The Phoenix Mercury center and two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February after police said she was carrying vape cans of cannabis oil. She could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale drug trafficking.
Less than 1 percent of suspects in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in the US, acquittals can be reversed.
Her case comes at an extraordinary low in Moscow-Washington relations. Griner was arrested less than a week before Russia sent troops to Ukraine, exacerbating already high tensions between the two countries. The US subsequently imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow and Russia denounced the US for sending weapons to Ukraine.
Elizabeth Rood, US charge d’affaires in Moscow, was in court and said she spoke with Griner, who is “doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances.”
“The Russian Federation has wrongfully detained Brittney Griner,” Rood said. “The practice of wrongful detention is unacceptable wherever it occurs and poses a threat to the safety of everyone who travels, works and lives abroad.”
She said the US government, at the highest level, is “working hard to bring Brittney and all wrongfully detained US citizens home safely.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Friday that politics played a role in Griner’s detention and prosecution.
“The facts are that the famous athlete was detained in possession of banned drugs containing narcotics,” Peskov told reporters. “Given what I’ve said, it can’t be politically motivated,” he added.
Griner’s supporters had kept quiet in hopes of a quiet solution until May, when the State Department reclassified her as unlawfully detained and handed oversight of her case to the Presidential Special Envoy for Hostage Hostage – in effect, the chief negotiator for the US government.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has urged President Joe Biden to secure her release, calling her “a political pawn.”
“It was good to see her in some of those images, but it’s hard. Every time it’s a reminder that their teammate, their friend, is wrongfully imprisoned in another country,” Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said Monday. .
Griner supporters have encouraged a prisoner swap like the one seen in April, in which Navy veteran Trevor Reed was brought home in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.
Russian news media have repeatedly speculated that she could be traded for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year prison sentence on charges of conspiracy to kill American civilians and aid a terrorist. organization .
Russia has been campaigning for Bout’s release for years. But the major discrepancy between Griner’s case — which involves alleged possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil — and Bout’s global deals in deadly weapons could make such a trade unpalatable to the US.
Others have suggested she could be trafficked in tandem with Paul Whelan, a former Marine and Security Director serving a 16-year prison sentence over an espionage conviction that the United States has repeatedly described as deliberate.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, when asked on CNN on Sunday whether a joint swap of Griner and Whelan for Bout was being considered, dodged the question.
“As a general statement…I have no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,” he said. But he said he couldn’t comment “into every detail about what we’re doing, except to say it’s an absolute priority.”