Brittney Griner’s trial begins in Russia

Griner’s conviction is far from certain, analysts say. Less than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted.

MOSCOW, Russia – American basketball star Brittney Griner appeared in a Moscow-area court on Friday, some 4 1/2 months after she was arrested for cannabis possession at an airport while traveling to play for a Russian team.

Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Police said she was carrying vape canisters of cannabis oil. The Phoenix Mercury Center and two-time US Olympic gold medalist faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale drug trafficking.

Less than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in the US, acquittals can be overturned.

At a closed-door preliminary hearing on Monday in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, Griner’s detention was extended by a further six months to December 20.

The athlete’s detention and trial mark an extraordinary low in Moscow-Washington relations. Griner was arrested less than a week before Russia sent troops to Ukraine, adding to already high tensions between the two countries.

The invasion led to sweeping sanctions by the United States, and Russia condemned the US for arms sales to Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday denied that politics played a role in Griner’s detention and prosecution. .

“The fact is that the famous athlete was arrested in possession of banned drugs containing narcotics,” Peskov told reporters. “From what I said, it can’t be politically motivated,” he added.

Griner’s supporters held back in hopes of a quiet solution until May, when the State Department ruled they were wrongly imprisoned and assigned oversight of their case to the President’s special envoy for hostage affairs – effectively the US government’s chief negotiator.

Griner’s wife Cherelle has urged President Joe Biden to secure her release, calling her a “political pawn”.

“It was nice to see her in some of these pictures, but it’s hard. Every time she is reminded that her teammate, her boyfriend, is unjustly imprisoned in another country,” Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said Monday.

The coach hoped Biden would “take the steps to make sure she got home.”

Griner’s supporters have sponsored a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought home Navy veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.

Russian news media have repeatedly expressed speculation that she could be swapped out for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Dealer of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence on charges of conspiring to kill US citizens and supporting a terrorist organization was convicted.

Russia has been campaigning 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 trade in lethal weapons could make such a swap uncomfortable for the US

Others have suggested she could be traded in tandem with Paul Whelan, a former Navy and Security director who is serving a 16-year sentence on a spying conviction that the United States has repeatedly called fraud.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken dodged the question when asked on CNN on Sunday whether a joint trade between Griner and Whelan for Bout was being considered.

“As a general statement … I have no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being held illegally in one way or another around the world come home,” he said. But he said he “can’t comment in detail on what we’re doing other than to say it’s an absolute priority”. Brittney Griner’s trial begins in Russia

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