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Brittney Griner back in Russian court amid hopes of a prisoner swap

WNBA star Brittney Griner speaks to her lawyers from a courtroom cage late last month. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/AP)

RIGA, Latvia — WNBA star Brittney Griner appeared in a Moscow court Tuesday for the first time since news broke that the Biden administration is proposing a prisoner exchange to bring her and another American prisoner, former Marine Paul Whelan, home.

The court questioned expert witnesses called by Griner’s legal team at Tuesday’s hearing.

The basketball player was escorted into a cramped court on the outskirts of Moscow by a team of masked SWAT police, underscoring how seriously Russian law enforcement views her case.

One of the experts, Dmitry Gladyshev, testified that a state expert’s checks for cannabis in vape cartridges in Griner’s luggage did not meet legal requirements. The hearing was adjourned until Thursday.

Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to Moscow for a prisoner exchange involving Griner and Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted on espionage charges. Whelan says he was framed.

Russian officials have said that no deal had been reached. The Foreign Ministry has accused the United States of trying to use public pressure to secure Griner’s release, warning that it will not help her cause. Russian officials have hinted that there may be willingness to negotiate a prisoner exchange, but only after her trial is complete.

Speaking on Aug. 4, WNBA superstar Brittney Griner said she had no intention of breaking Russian law after a small amount of cannabis oil was found in her bags. (Video: The Washington Post)

Proposal for Griner, Whelan follows history of U.S.-Russia prisoner swaps

Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, who was present at the hearing, said the embassy staff would continue to support Griner until she arrived safely back in the United States, as well as other Americans jailed in Russia.

Griner earlier pleaded guilty to carrying two vape cartridges containing cannabis oil into the country in mid-February. She was arrested at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow were strained, with President Vladimir Putin preparing to invade Ukraine.

Her lawyers made their case for leniency last week, arguing that she did not intend to break Russian law. Griner testified that she had packed in a hurry and did not know how the vape cartridges ended up in her baggage. The basketball star said she used cannabis to relieve chronic pain from injuries. She said law enforcement officials did not read her legal rights to her when she was arrested.

President Biden and Putin opened a channel for negotiations on prisoner exchanges after they met last year, according to Russia’s Foreign Ministry. Former Marine Trevor Reed, convicted of assaulting police, was exchanged in April for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence in the United States for drug smuggling.

U.S. and Russian officials have not confirmed media reports that Washington offered to exchange arms dealer Viktor Bout, 55, dubbed the “Merchant of Death,” for Griner and Whelan. Russia has sought Bout’s release for years, calling his imprisonment unlawful. He is serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois for conspiring to kill U.S. nationals and selling weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Russia wants Viktor Bout back, badly. The question is: Why?

Another American, schoolteacher Marc Fogel, who like Griner was arrested on drug charges after bringing cannabis into the country for treatment of chronic pain, is serving a 14-year sentence in a Russian high-security prison.

Fogel has not been classified by the U.S. State Department as wrongfully detained, meaning he is excluded from negotiations on any exchange. He brought 17 grams of cannabis into the country, while Griner pleaded guilty to importing 0.702 grams. Like Griner, he pleaded guilty, hoping for leniency.

Both were detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, and Fogel’s trial took place at the same Khimki court on the edge of Moscow, where Griner’s trial reconvened Tuesday.

Fogel’s wife, Jane Fogel, told The Washington Post last week that she hoped her husband could be included in any prisoner swap but worried he would be forgotten.

“There’s a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that Marc will be left behind,” Jane Fogel said. One of his sisters, Anne Fogel, called the 14-year jail term an effective death sentence in comments to CNN.

This American teacher also sits in a Russian jail, worried nobody cares

The State Department has not commented on Fogel’s case or why he is not classified as wrongfully detained.

In 2019, Israeli American Naama Issachar was sentenced to seven years in prison after nearly 10 grams of cannabis was found in her backpack during a layover in Moscow as she flew from India to Israel. She was freed when Putin pardoned her, after he met her mother, Yaffa Issachar, during a January 2020 trip to Israel marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

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