Russian prosecutors call first witnesses in case against Brittney Griner

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KHIMKI, RUSSIA — The trial for Brittney Griner, a WNBA star who has been detained in Russia for more than four months on drug charges, began Friday with prosecutors sharing new details about the case.

U.S. Embassy officials are on hand for the trial. Press access is tightly controlled, but a crowd of journalists crammed together to catch a glimpse of Griner, in handcuffs and a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, being escorted by guards into the courtroom at Khimki City Court, just outside of Moscow.

During Friday’s hearing, Griner was not asked to declare her innocence or guilt. That phase of the legal process will come later.

Prosecutor says Griner imported two hash cartridges

Griner was arrested on Feb. 17, after authorities at a Moscow area airport allegedly found cannabis vape cartridges in her luggage. She could face up to 10 years in prison if she’s convicted of drug smuggling charges.

At Friday’s court session, prosecutors unsealed their case against Griner.

Russian state news agency Tass, which had a staff member in the courtroom, reported that the indictment alleges that before traveling to Russia in February, Griner “bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil.”

A security inspection allegedly uncovered 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 agents who were working at the airport when Griner’s bags were inspected, Griner’s lawyer, Alexander Boikov, told NPR. Prosecutors will likely have four hearings before the defense gets its turn, he said.

As for Griner’s mindset right now, Boikov said that she is “a bit worried” because of the trial and the potential of a prison sentence — “but she’s a tough lady and I think she will manage.”

The next hearing is slated for July 7. A Russian judge has ordered Griner to be detained for the length of her trial.

The U.S. says Griner is being held as a bargaining chip
After Friday’s hearing, U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Rood said she spoke with Griner in the courtroom.

“She asked me to convey that she is in good spirits and is keeping up the faith,” Rood said.

In early May, the Biden administration declared Griner to be wrongfully detained by Russia’s government. The U.S. believes the Putin regime ordered Griner’s arrest so it could use her as leverage.

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“Wrongful detention as a bargaining chip is a threat to the safety of everyone traveling and living abroad,” U.S. Ambassador to Russia John J. Sullivan said in May. He and other U.S. officials have said their top priority is to help Griner and other citizens detained in Russia.

Terri Jackson, executive director of the union representing WNBA players, told NPR that she wants the president to do more.

“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.”

When contacted by NPR about that request, a White House spokesperson noted that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan “spoke with Brittney’s wife this past week and the White House is closely coordinating with the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, who has met with Brittney’s family, her teammates, and her support network.”

The U.S. government “continues to work aggressively – using every available means – to bring her home,” the spokesperson said.

Griner has played basketball in Russia for years
Griner, 31, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and star center with the Phoenix Mercury. Her ordeal began one week before Russia invaded Ukraine, and her detention has been extended repeatedly. A request for home detention was also denied.

Like many WNBA players, Griner earns far more than her WNBA salary by playing overseas during the U.S. offseason. For years now, she has played for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, which is owned by oligarch Iskander Makhmudov. The team has had longstanding ties to the Mercury.

“They know who they have,” Jackson said, noting Griner’s decorated career both in the U.S. 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 call for her release, the WNBA is marking her absence from its current season by emblazoning her initials and number — BG42 — on the home courts of its 12 teams.

Kremlin denies playing politics in Griner’s case
The Kremlin insists the case isn’t politically motivated. Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that he wouldn’t comment on an ongoing court case — but he then spoke about what he said are the facts of the matter.

“I can only state the facts,” Peskov said, saying Griner was apprehended “with forbidden compounds that contained narcotic substances.” He added, “Only the court can do something in terms of handing down any verdicts.”

The State Department recently affirmed its Level 4 advisory against travel to Russia. Aside from the disruptions related to the country’s invasion of Ukraine, Americans are at risk in Russia, the agency said.

“Russian security services have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, singled out U.S. citizens in Russia … denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence,” the advisory states.

Maynes reported from Russia. Chappell reported from Washington, D.C.

 

WNBA star Brittney Griner appears in Moscow-area court for trial on cannabis possession charges

MOSCOW — American basketball star Brittney Griner went on trial Friday, 4 1/2 months after her arrest on charges of possessing cannabis oil while returning to play for a Russian team, in a case that unfolded amid tense relations between Moscow and Washington.

The initial session of the trial, which was adjourned until July 7, offered the most extensive public interaction between Griner and reporters since the Phoenix Mercury center and two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

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Griner, 31, was escorted into the courtroom in the capital’s suburb of Khimki while handcuffed and wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. At a closed-door preliminary hearing Monday, her detention was extended for another six months, to Dec. 20.

Police have said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil when detained at the airport. She could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale transportation of drugs.

The state-owned Tass news agency quoted Griner as saying in court that she understood the charges but would not comment further on them until later.

Two witnesses were questioned by the prosecution: an airport customs official, 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 for a week, it said, when two other witnesses did not show up.

Alexander Boykov, an attorney for Griner, told reporters outside court that “I wouldn’t want to talk on the specifics of the case and on the charges and to comment on our position on it because it’s too early for it.”

Boykov also told RIA-Novosti that she has been exercising in the detention area. The Russian website Business FM reported that Griner, who smiled at times, said she wishes she could work out more and that she was struggling because she doesn’t understand Russian.

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

Her case comes at an extraordinarily low point in Moscow-Washington relations. Griner was arrested less than a week before Russia sent troops into Ukraine, which aggravated already high tensions between the two countries. The U.S. then imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow, and Russia denounced the U.S. for sending weapons to Ukraine.

Elizabeth Rood, U.S. 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 is a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad.”

She said the U.S. government, from its highest levels, “is working hard to bring Brittney and all wrongfully detained U.S. nationals home safely.”

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 had 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 U.S. government’s chief negotiator.

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

The coach hoped that Biden would “take the steps to ensure she comes home.”

Griner’s supporters have encouraged a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought 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 on conviction of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

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 U.S.

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.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, when asked Sunday on CNN whether a joint swap of Griner and Whelan for Bout was being considered, sidestepped the question.

“As a general proposition … I have got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,” he said. But he said he could not comment “in any detail on what we’re doing, except to say this is an absolute priority.”

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Guard Tiffany Hayes made a statement in her return to action for the Atlanta Dream on Thursday, leading the team with 21 points in a 92-81 overtime victory at the New York Liberty. It was the first game this WNBA season for Hayes, who had been out with a knee injury.

Hayes, 32, is the longest-tenured current member of the Dream; this is her 10th season in the league after being drafted by Atlanta out of UConn in 2012. She re-signed as a free agent with the Dream in February.

The Dream came under new ownership before last season and got a new general manager last October. Atlanta traded to get the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft and took Rhyne Howard, currently the front-runner for WNBA Rookie of the Year and an All-Star in her first season.

“Everybody can see the changes, and I’m just glad I’m able to be here and be a part of it,” Hayes said Thursday after going 8-of-15 from the field in almost 30 minutes of play. “Definitely wanted to stay in Atlanta for as long as I could.

“Me going out there and doing my thing is probably a thank you for them coming in and making those changes. Just happy to be here.”

The Dream, whose last postseason appearance was in 2018, are 9-11 and in playoff position. They got back another key player, guard Erica Wheeler, on Tuesday after she had missed six games with a foot injury. Wheeler hit the game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation, and then the Dream dominated the overtime 13-2.

The Dream acquired guard AD Durr, the No. 2 pick by New York in the 2019 draft, in a trade in early June. Durr made a return to the Big Apple on Thursday and scored five points.

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