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Brittney Griner prepares to testify this week in Russian trial

Two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA player Brittney Griner is escorted out of a courtroom after a hearing at the Khimki City Court outside Moscow on July 26, 2022. (Photo for The Washington Post)

RIGA, Latvia — WNBA star Brittney Griner faced another nerve-racking week in her Moscow trial on drug charges, with her lawyers continuing to present their case and with cross-examination by the prosecution expected Wednesday.

The Phoenix Mercury player returned to court Tuesday, where her defense team called witnesses to support their case for leniency after she pleaded guilty to carrying cannabis oil into Russia. She could be sent to prison for up to 10 years.

Griner, wearing a dark hoodie with the words “Black Lives for Peace” on the back, spoke briefly to U.S. Embassy personnel before the trial resumed. She held up a photograph of supporters from the courtroom cage that is used to secure defendants in Russian courtrooms.

The deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy, Elizabeth Rood, said afterward that Griner “is doing okay and is as well as can be expected under the circumstances.”

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Griner’s legal team called a drug expert, Mikhail Tetyushkin, who testified that cannabis is used as a medical treatment for athletes in various countries, including the United States. The defense also presented evidence that Griner had tested negative for marijuana.

One of her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, a partner at the Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm, said after the hearing that Griner had used cannabis oil for medicinal, not recreational, purposes, having previously shown the court medical certificates indicating she suffers from chronic pain.

Griner’s other lawyer, Alexander Boikov, said the defense was not trying to argue that she had a right to bring an illegal substance into Russia. “We will continue to insist that she was in a hurry when she packed her baggage and did not notice that substances banned in Russia ended up in her suitcase,” he said. “We insist that she had no intent.”

Blagovolina said the defense expects several more hearings before the trial ends, including a key session on Wednesday, when Griner is expected to take the witness stand and face questions from the prosecutor and judge. After her testimony and cross-examination, the defense will rest its case.

Tuesday’s hearing was suspended after a consular official from the U.S. Embassy delegation supporting Griner fainted because of the heat in the courtroom. Rood later told journalists that the official was fine.

Griner has been in custody since mid-February, after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage at Sheremetyevo International Airport. She was arrested a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when relations between Washington and Moscow were increasingly tense. The Kremlin has rejected U.S. claims that Griner is being wrongfully held.

Griner pleaded guilty on July 7 to carrying cannabis oil and faces up to 10 years in prison. The State Department categorized Griner as “wrongfully detained." (Video: The Washington Post)

The trial has widened the gulf between Washington and Moscow and intensified anti-American sentiment in Russia. State television broadcasts aggressive propaganda daily, claiming that the United States provoked Russia’s war against Ukraine as part of a plot to dismember the country and gobble up its resources.

But Griner does have a well of sympathy in Yekaterinburg, the Urals city where she starred for the local team UMMC Yekaterinburg in a Russian league that pays Americans generous salaries to play during the WNBA offseason.

UMMC Yekaterinburg’s 1,000-member fan group on VKontakte, or VK, Russia’s version of Facebook, mostly supports Griner.

“I hope all ends well for Brittney and she can return to her family,” wrote a fan named Tatyana under a group post that quoted team director Maksim Ryabkov’s character testimony at the trial this month.

“A story that was blown out of proportion. Let the athlete go,” commented Nadezhda Maiga under a recent photo picturing Griner in a courtroom cage.

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It is not clear when the verdict and sentence will be handed down. In the final stages of the case, the prosecutor and defense will sum up their cases, and the prosecutor will spell out what punishment the state is seeking. Griner will be given a “final word” — the defendant’s last chance to address the court about the charges.

Some Americans have voiced concern that an openly gay Black woman could face legal bias in a country with a long history of racism and discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine freed from a Russian prison in a prisoner exchange in April, said last month at a rally in Griner’s support that she is “in a lot of ways in a worse position” than he was “because Brittney is African American.”

With political and diplomatic ties between Washington and Moscow in a deep freeze, sports and cultural ties are also fraying, and it seems unlikely that WNBA players will continue to play in Russia. Griner’s American teammates in Yekaterinburg — Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Jonquel Jones — flew home after Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

The U.S. State Department has warned Americans not to travel to Russia.

The White House says that Griner is being held in “intolerable circumstances” and that it will do all it can to have her released with other Americans it says are wrongly detained, including Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine arrested in 2018, convicted of spying in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He denies the charges, saying he was set up.

Russian officials have condemned the public pressure in the United States for Griner’s release while hinting that Russia may be willing to hand her over in a prisoner swap — but only after the trial has been completed.

However, Moscow’s terms may be difficult for Washington to accept: Media speculation is increasing about a possible exchange involving the Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois after being convicted of conspiring to kill U.S. nationals and of selling weapons to terrorists.

The White House and State Department have said that freeing Griner and other Americans they say are wrongly held is their highest priority.

Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

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