US basketball star Brittney Greener appeared in court on Friday, 4 1/2 months after her arrest on charges of possessing cannabis oil while returning to play for a Russian team, in a case that came amid strained relations between Moscow and Washington.
The trial’s initial hearing, which was postponed until July 7, offered the most extensive public interaction between Greener and reporters from Phoenix Mercury Center and two-time US Olympic gold medalist was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.
Griner, 31, was escorted into the courtroom in the capital’s Khimki suburb in handcuffs, carrying a bottle of water and what appeared to be a magazine and wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt.
Police said she was carrying vape pods of cannabis oil when she was detained at the airport. She could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting large quantities of drugs.
State news agency TASS quoted Griner as saying in court that she understood the charges against her. Asked by the judge if she wanted to enter a plea, Greener said, “Not at this time, your honor. At a later date,” according to Mediazona, an independent news site known for its extensive coverage of high-profile court cases.
Less than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in American courts, acquittals can be overturned.
Two witnesses were questioned by the prosecution: an airport customs official who spoke in open court and an unidentified witness in closed court. according to the state news agency RIA-Novosti. The trial was then adjourned as two other witnesses failed to appear.
Alexander Boykov, Griner’s lawyer, said outside the court hearing that he did not want to comment on “the specifics of the case and the charges” because it was too early to do so.
Boykov also told RIA Novosti that she did exercises and walks in the area of the arrest. Russian website Business FM said Griner, who sometimes smiled at reporters, said she wished she could train more and that she struggled because she did not understand Russian. In addition to the WNBA Mercury, she plays in Russia for UMMC Yekaterinburg.
Elizabeth Rudd, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Moscow, was in court and said she had spoken to Greener, who was “doing as well as could be expected under these difficult circumstances”.
“The Russian Federation wrongfully detained Brittney Greener,” Rudd said. “The practice of wrongful detention is unacceptable wherever it occurs and is a threat to the safety of anyone who travels, works and lives abroad.”
She said the U.S. government, from its highest levels, “is working hard to bring Britney and all wrongfully detained U.S. citizens home safely.”
Behind closed doors preliminary hearing On Monday, Griner’s detention was extended for another six months until December 20.
Her case is at an extremely low point in Moscow-Washington relations. Griner was arrested less than a week before Russia sent troops to Ukraine, exacerbating already high tensions between the two countries. The US then imposed sweeping sanctions on Moscow, and Russia condemned the US for sending weapons to Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday denied that politics played a role in Griner’s detention and prosecution.
“The facts are that the famous athlete was detained in possession of prohibited drugs containing narcotic substances,” Peskov told reporters. “In view of what I said, this cannot be politically motivated,” he added.
Griner’s supporters have been huddled in hopes of a quiet resolution until May, when the State Department reclassified her as wrongfully detained and turned over oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage issues — effectively the U.S. government’s chief negotiator.
Griner’s wife, Cherylcalled on President Joe Biden to secure her release, calling her a “political pawn.”
“It was nice to see her in some of these images, but it’s hard. Every time it’s a reminder that their teammate, their friend, is wrongfully imprisoned in another country,” Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said Monday.
Griner’s supporters have encouraged prisoner swaps like the one in April that brought in Marine Corps veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of a drug-trafficking conspiracy.
Russian media have repeatedly speculated that she could be swapped for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill American citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
Russia has been campaigning for Bout’s release for years. But the stark disparity between Greener’s case — which involved the alleged possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil — and Booth’s global dealings in lethal weapons could make such an exchange unpalatable to the U.S.
Others suggest that she can be traded together with Paul Whelana former Marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction that the US has repeatedly described as manipulation.
Andrew Cattell contributed from New York.
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