Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug charges in Russia
By Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko
The detained American basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a court near Moscow on Thursday, her lawyer said.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner said in English, which was then translated into Russian, Reuters reported.
Griner has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17, accused by Russian authorities of having a vape cartridge with hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.
Aleksandr Boikov, her lawyer, said cartridges appeared in Griner’s luggage “because of carelessness.”
“She pleaded guilty, stressing that she was carrying substances prohibited in Russia unintentionally, because she was packing in a hurry,” Boikov said.
If Griner is convicted, she could face up to 10 years in a Russian penal colony. Griner still faces formal conviction and sentencing proceedings, and her next day in court is scheduled to be July 14.
Her guilty plea came hours after a top Russian diplomat lashed out at the Biden administration for trying to “foment hype” around her case.
The Russian diplomat, Sergei A. Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister, said that the publicity around the case was not helping Griner, who U.S. officials say is essentially a hostage taken by President Vladimir Putin in the run-up to the war in Ukraine.
Ryabkov indicated that Moscow would be prepared to negotiate her fate, but only after the court reached a verdict on the drug charges that were brought against her.
“We have a long-established form of discussing these matters,” Ryabkov told reporters on Thursday in Moscow, according to the Interfax news agency. “The American side’s attempts to foment hype and make noise in the public environment are understandable, but they don’t help to practically resolve issues.”
After her trial began last week, Griner sent a handwritten letter to President Joe Biden asking him not to “forget about” her and other American detainees overseas.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke on Wednesday with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, according to a statement released by the White House.
During the call, the statement said, the president read a draft of a letter that he planned to send to Brittney Griner. He also said that his administration was pursuing “every avenue to bring Brittney home.”
Speaking outside the courtroom on Thursday, Elizabeth Rood, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said she had spoken to Griner and she had been able to read the president’s letter.
“She said that she’s eating well, she’s able to read books, and under the circumstances, she’s doing well,” Rood said, according to a video posted on Twitter by an NPR correspondent. She added: “I would like again to emphasize the commitment of the U.S. government at the very highest level to bring home safely Ms. Griner and all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained.”
Cherelle Griner has publicly expressed frustration with Biden and his administration’s efforts to secure her wife’s release.
In a statement to The New York Times on Wednesday, Cherelle Griner said she was grateful to Biden and Harris “for the time they spent with me and for the commitment they expressed to getting B.G. home.”
The U.S. government has classified Brittney Griner as “wrongfully detained” and is working to secure her release regardless of the outcome of the trial. While the Kremlin claims it has no involvement in Griner’s case, Russian state media reports have indicated that Moscow may press the United States to free a Russian in U.S. custody — like the convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout — in exchange for her freedom.
Ryabkov said that until the conclusion of Griner’s case, “there are no formal procedural grounds” to discuss further steps. He hinted, however, that Moscow was interested in negotiating over her fate, claiming that she would be helped by “a serious reading by the American side of the signals that they received from Russia, from Moscow, through specialized channels.”
He did not specify what those signals were, but insisted that talks on Griner’s fate should take place out of the public eye, according to Russian news reports.