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Brittney Griner is escorted to a court for a hearing on Friday Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
brittney griner

Trial of US basketball star Brittney Griner opens in Russia

The two-time Olympic gold medallist is facing up to 10 years in prison for large-scale transportation of drugs.

LAST UPDATE | 1 Jul 2022

THE TRIAL OF US basketball star Brittney Griner, detained in Russia since February, opened on Friday as tensions rage over Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine.

Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and WNBA champion, faces up to 10 years in prison on charges of drug smuggling.

Her case has become one of many sticking points in relations between the United States and Russia, with Washington saying the 31-year-old Griner has been “wrongfully detained” and putting its special envoy in charge of hostages on the case.
embedded267684466 Brittney Griner was arrested on cannabis possession charges Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP / AP

Police said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil.

Fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and acquittals can be overturned.

“The trial has started,” Polina Vdovtsova, the spokeswoman for the court in the town of Khimki outside Moscow, told reporters.

The proceedings were partially closed, with a limited media presence, which Vdovtsova said was “on the request of the defence, the request of Griner herself”.

Griner came to Russia in February to play club basketball during the US off-season – a common path for American stars seeking additional income.

She was detained at a Moscow airport after she was found carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage – just days before Russian President Vladimir Putin defied US warnings and sent troops into Ukraine.

Her arrest aggravated already high tensions between the two countries.

embedded267684468 Brittney Griner’s detention was extended for another six months Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP / AP

The invasion led to sweeping sanctions imposed by the United States, and Russia denounced the US for sending weapons to Ukraine.

Amid the tension, Griner’s supporters have kept a low profile in hopes of a quiet resolution, until May, when the state department reclassified her as wrongfully detained and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs – effectively the US government’s chief negotiator.

Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has urged US 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 tough.

“Every time’s a reminder that their teammate, their friend, is wrongfully imprisoned in another country,” Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said on Monday.

She said she hoped that Mr Biden would “take the steps to ensure she comes home”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday denied politics played a role in Griner’s detention and prosecution. .

“The facts are that the famous athlete was detained in possession of prohibited medication containing narcotic substances,” Peskov told reporters.

“In view of what I’ve said, it can’t be politically motivated,” he added.

Griner’s supporters have encouraged a prisoner swap like the one in April that sent home marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug-trafficking conspiracy.

Russian news media have repeatedly raised speculation that she could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death”, who is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.

Russia has agitated 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 dealings in deadly weapons, could make such a swap unpalatable to the US.

Others have suggested that she could be traded in tandem with Paul Whelan, a former marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction that the United States has repeatedly described as a setup.

Additional reporting from AFP