Brittney Griner back in Russian court for cannabis possession amid U.S. release efforts

KHIMKI, Russia — American basketball star Brittney Griner was back on trial Tuesday for her cannabis possession trial, while the U.S. diplomatically sought her release.

During the hearing, prosecutors called a state drug expert, who analyzed the cannabis found in Griner’s luggage. Her defense employed a specialist who questioned the analysis, accusing it of being flawed and not conforming to official rules.

If convicted, the WNBA star and two-time Olympic champion faces ten years in prison. As the trial progressed, the Biden administration faced increasing public pressure to secure her release.

Sources have told ESPN’s TJ Quinn that a verdict and conviction are expected on August 5.

In an extraordinary move, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov last week, urging him to accept a deal that would free Griner and Paul Whelan, an American jailed in Russia for espionage.

The Lavrov Blinken call was the most high-profile contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops to Ukraine more than five months ago, the direct contact conflicting with US efforts to isolate the Kremlin.

People familiar with the proposal say it envisages trading Griner and Whelan for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout. It underscores the public pressure the White House has faced to release Griner.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday Russia responded to the US government’s offer in “malicious intent,” a counteroffer American officials don’t take seriously. She declined to elaborate.

Griner has admitted vape canisters of cannabis oil were in her luggage when she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February. But she insisted she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage because she was hastily packing. Griner played for a Russian women’s basketball team in the WNBA off-season.

To support her case, her defense attorneys have submitted statements from doctors that she was prescribed cannabis to treat pain. Medical treatment with marijuana is not legal in Russia.

While Russian law gives judges leeway to consider mitigating factors, acquittals are rare, accounting for less than 1% of cases in Russian criminal cases.

However, a conviction could potentially pave the way for Griner’s replacement, as Russian officials said it could only happen after the trial is complete.

Tom Firestone, a Washington attorney who was formerly a legal counsel at the US Embassy in Moscow, said Griner could face a harsh sentence so the Russians “can maximize their bargaining power.” He told The Associated Press that Russia “may want to let this play out a bit longer and try to get more concessions.”

Russian officials have ridiculed US statements on the case, saying they flout Russian law. They remained unconcerned, urging Washington to discuss the issue through “quiet diplomacy without the release of speculative information.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. Brittney Griner back in Russian court for cannabis possession amid U.S. release efforts

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