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Brittney Griner appears in Russian court over drug charges

WNBA star could face 10 years in jail if convicted for possessing a ‘significant amount’ of cannabis oil

WNBA star Brittney Griner arrived at a Russian court on July 1. U.S. officials expect the trial to be a sham. (Video: Russian pool via AP)
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RIGA, Latvia — A Russian prosecutor on Friday accused WNBA star Brittney Griner of transporting a “significant amount” of cannabis oil, according to Russian media reports on her trial, where she faces 10 years in prison if convicted.

The quantity cited by the prosecutor was 0.702 grams, or about two hundredths of an ounce, the Russian state media reported.

Griner arrived at the courtroom in the Moscow suburb of Khimki wearing handcuffs and a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt to face charges that she was carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her baggage at a Moscow airport in February, a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Griner, seated in a cage in the courtroom with a bottle of water and a bag of cookies, said she understood the charges. She did not enter a plea. Court officials initially barred media and cameras from the court, according to Russian media, but several journalists were later admitted.

The court heard testimony from a senior customs official, who said it had been customs officers that found vape canisters in Griner’s baggage containing cannabis oil, state media reported.

“According to the expert’s conclusion, the detected substance is cannabis oil, which is subject to control on the territory of the Russian Federation and is classified as a narcotic drug,” the prosecutor told the court, according to Russian BFM radio.

Griner’s lawyer Alexander Boikov, who spoke briefly to reporters after the case adjourned, said she did not make any comment on the charges, reserving the right to do so later. Another of her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, said Griner had “no complaints over the conditions of her detention.”

The court adjourned until July 7 to hear more evidence from witnesses.

Griner has been in custody since February and will remain there until December, pending the outcome of her trial. U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Elizabeth Rood and other U.S. diplomats attended her hearing.

Everything you need to know about Brittney Griner in Russia

Rood said that the United States was working “at the highest levels” to bring home Griner and all other Americans wrongfully detained around the globe.

“We care deeply about this case and about Ms. Griner’s welfare, as do so many Americans, and as we do with all U.S. citizen prisoners overseas. We were able to speak to Ms. Griner in the courtroom today. She is doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances,” Rood said in an emailed statement.

Griner’s case has been complicated by the severe downturn in relations between Washington and Moscow, and her supporters say she is a hostage and political pawn.

“The Russian Federation has wrongfully detained Brittney Griner,” Rood’s statement added. “The practice of wrongful detention is unacceptable wherever it occurs and is a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied there were any political motives behind the trial.

“I can only operate with facts. The facts show that the eminent athlete was detained with illegal drugs that contained narcotic substances. Russian legislation does have laws that provide for punishments for such crimes,” Peskov said.

Peskov last week dismissed claims Griner was a hostage, saying that drug offenses are treated seriously in Russia and many other countries. “We cannot call her a hostage. Why should we call her a hostage?” he said.

Griner’s supporters in the United States have called on President Biden to negotiate a prisoner swap like one in April, when Russia exchanged former Marine Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year prison sentence in Connecticut for drug trafficking. Reed had been jailed for nine years after being convicted of assault endangering the lives of police officers.

Brittney Griner’s trial in Russia is set to start. Here’s what to expect.

Griner is one of two Americans that the State Department says are being wrongfully held by Russia. Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan has been in jail since December 2018, when he traveled to Moscow for a friend’s wedding and was arrested in his hotel room. He was sentenced to 16 years after being convicted of spying in a closed trial. He denies the charges and calls the case political.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that freeing wrongfully held Americans such as Whelan and Griner was his highest priority.

“I’ve got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home, and that includes Paul Whelan and that includes Brittney Griner,” he said in an interview with CNN, declining to comment on whether the U.S. government was seeking a prisoner exchange involving Whelan and Griner.

Russian media outlets have speculated that Washington could exchange Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving 25 years in the United States for conspiring to sell surface-to-air missiles to a foreign terrorist group and conspiring to kill U.S. citizens. Bout, the inspiration for the Nicholas Cage film “Lord of War,” allegedly smuggled arms to warlords in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia for years — sometimes arming both sides in a conflict — until his 2008 arrest in Thailand and 2010 extradition to the United States. Russia calls Bout’s arrest and conviction “unlawful and political” and has been demanding his release since 2008.

According to Russian customs officials, Griner was stopped at Sheremetyevo International Airport when a sniffer dog “indicated that drugs may be in the carry-on luggage of a United States citizen,” a reference to Griner.

Customs officials said they found vapes in her luggage, which were later analyzed and found to contain cannabis oil. The customs agency posted video of the airport search apparently taken from surveillance cameras.

In early May, the State Department determined that Griner was being wrongfully held and shifted supervision of her case to Roger Carstens, presidential envoy for hostage affairs. The department has not elaborated on the basis for the judgment.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said at the time that the department weighed the circumstances in each case, “whether it’s the case of Brittney Griner, whether it’s the case of Paul Whelan, whether it’s the case of Americans in Iran. There are going to be unique factors in each and every one of those cases.”

Price said Griner was “fortunate to have a network who has supported her from day one,” adding that the department had worked closely with her backers.

About a month before the invasion of Ukraine, the State Department issued a Level 4 security warning to Americans, stipulating “do not travel” to Russia because of the risk of arbitrary enforcement of the law and harassment by Russian officials, as well as tensions over Ukraine. It warned that State Department officials had a limited ability to help U.S. citizens in Russia.

“Russian officials have unreasonably delayed U.S. consular assistance to detained U.S. citizens and have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting evidence,” the warning read.