Brittney Griner appears in Russian court as attorneys plead for leniency
By Ivan Nechepurenko
Escorted by a masked police officer with a dog, her wrists handcuffed, American basketball star Brittney Griner appeared in a Russian court Tuesday for another hearing in a trial that is likely to end with her conviction in the middle of this month, her attorneys said.
One of the best players of her generation, Griner has been caught up in a confrontation between Russia and the United States over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As the case is heard in a courtroom, the wrangling over Griner’s fate has shifted increasingly to the diplomatic arena, with Russia and the United States signaling her possible involvement in an exchange for high-profile Russians in U.S. custody.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. government had “put a substantial proposal on the table,” although he declined to discuss the details. On Thursday, he discussed the matter with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in their first phone call since the war in Ukraine. But no breakthroughs were reported, and no progress is expected before Anna Sotnikova, a judge in the town of Khimki, near Moscow, delivers a verdict in the case.
Griner, 31, was detained in a Moscow airport while traveling to Yekaterinburg, Russia, to play for a local team there about one week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Customs officials found two vape cartridges containing less than 1 gram of hashish oil in her luggage.
News of her detention was made public only after the war started, however. She was charged with attempting to smuggle a significant amount of illegal narcotics into Russia, an offense that carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Last month, Griner plead guilty to the charges, stressing that she had not intended to break Russian law and that the illegal substance had been in her luggage as a result of oversight while packing in a hurry. In Russia, a guilty plea does not end a trial, and the proceedings are expected to continue until mid-August, according to her legal team.
On Tuesday, Griner’s attorneys called in an expert, who testified that the analysis of vape cartridges carried out by the state did not meet Russian legal requirements.
Thus, “it would be wrong to establish the exact amount” of the illegal substance, said Alexander Boikov, Griner’s attorney. According to the Russian criminal code, the severity of punishment depends on the amount of narcotics discovered in the defendant’s possession, among other things.
Griner’s legal team is trying to persuade the judge to soften the eventual sentence. They had one of Griner’s Russian teammates, Yevgeniya Belyakova, testify, along with the team’s director and doctor. Her legal team has also argued that she was authorized to use medicinal cannabis in Arizona, where she has played for the Phoenix Mercury since 2013, to mitigate pain from injuries to her spine, ankle and knees.
During her own testimony in court last week, Griner described how upon detention she had faced a confusing and sometimes bewildering Russian legal system. Her rights were not explained to her and an attorney was provided only 16 hours after her detention began, she said. Griner also said that she had been instructed to sign papers with no explanation of what they implied and that an interpreter, provided by the law enforcement, had translated “almost nothing.”
The hearing was adjourned until Thursday, when both sides will present their closing arguments, said Maria Blagovolina, an attorney with the Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners firm, which is also representing Griner.