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Brittney Griner (file photo) Alexander Zemlianichenko/PA

US basketball star Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug possession in Russia

Griner was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

JAILED AMERICAN BASKETBALL star Brittney Griner has pleaded guilty to drug possession during her trial in Moscow but said she had no intention of committing a crime.

Representatives for Griner confirmed to The Associated Press that the athlete had pleaded guilty to drug possession charges.

Russian news reports quoted Griner as saying through an interpreter at the court hearing that she had acted unintentionally because she was packing in haste.

Griner was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after vape canisters with cannabis oil were allegedly found in her luggage. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale transportation of drugs.

Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Moscow, told reporters after the hearing that she had spoken to Griner in the courtroom and shared a letter from US president Joe Biden that she read.

“She’s eating well, she’s able to read books and under the circumstances she’s doing well,” Rood said of Griner.

“I would like again to emphasise the commitment of the US government at the very highest level to bring home safely Ms Griner and all US citizens wrongfully detained, as well as the commitment of the US Embassy in Moscow to care for and protect the interests of all US citizens detained or imprisoned in Russia,” she added.

The trial of the Phoenix Mercury star and two-time Olympic gold medallist began last week amid a growing chorus of calls for Washington to do more to secure her freedom nearly five months after her arrest.

Before Thursday’s hearing, Russian police escorted Griner, handcuffed and clad in a bright red T-shirt and sports trousers, into the courtroom past a crowd of journalists.

Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov warned on Thursday that “attempts by the American side to make noise in public … don’t help the practical settlement of issues”.

The White House said Joe Biden had called Griner’s wife on Wednesday to assure her that he was doing all he could to obtain the athlete’s release, as soon as possible.

They spoke after the US president read a letter from Griner in which she said she feared she would never return home.

Prisoner swap

Washington has not made public its strategy in the case and the United States may have little leverage with Moscow because of strong animosity due to Russia’s military actions in Ukraine.

The state department has designated Griner as wrongfully detained, moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.

Asked about the possibility of Griner being swapped for a Russian jailed in the US, Ryabkov, the senior Russian diplomat, noted that until her trial was over “there are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps”.

He warned that US criticism, including a description of Griner as wrongfully detained and dismissive comments about the Russian judicial system, “makes it difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges”.

“The persistence with which the US administration … describes those who were handed prison sentences for serious criminal articles and those who are awaiting the end of investigation and court verdicts as ‘wrongfully detained’ reflects Washington’s refusal to have a sober view of the outside world,” Ryabkov added.

Griner’s trial was adjourned after it started last week because two scheduled witnesses failed to appear.

Such delays are routine in Russian courts and her detention has been authorised through until 20 December, suggesting the proceedings could last months.

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

Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the wide discrepancy between Griner’s alleged offence and Bout’s global dealings in deadly weapons could make such a swap unpalatable to Washington.

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

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