01 July 2022

US basketball star appears in court in Russia

01 July 2022

American basketball star Brittney Griner appeared in a Russian court on Friday, four months after she was arrested on cannabis possession charges at an airport while travelling to play for a Russian team.

Griner was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

Police said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil.

The Phoenix Mercury star and two-time US Olympic gold medallist could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale transportation of drugs.

Fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and acquittals can be overturned.

Brittney Griner was arrested on cannabis possession charges (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP) (AP)

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

Photos obtained by The Associated Press, including one of the few close-ups of Griner since her arrest on February 17, showed the 31-year-old in handcuffs and looking straight ahead.

She declined to answer questions from reporters in English as she was led through the court, according to video shown in Russian media.

Russian media later reported that Griner’s lawyers would not comment on how their client planned to plead.

The athlete’s detention and trial come at an extraordinarily low point in Moscow-Washington relations.

Griner was arrested less than a week before Russia sent troops into Ukraine, which aggravated already high tensions between the two countries.

Brittney Griner’s detention was extended for another six months (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP) (AP)

The invasion led to sweeping sanctions imposed by the United States, and Russia denounced the US for sending weapons to Ukraine.

Amid the tension, Griner’s supporters have kept a low profile in hopes of a quiet resolution, until May, when the state department reclassified her as wrongfully detained and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs – effectively the US government’s chief negotiator.

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

“It was good to see her in some of those images, but it’s tough.

“Every time’s a reminder that their teammate, their friend, is wrongfully imprisoned in another country,” Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said on Monday.

She said she hoped that Mr Biden would “take the steps to ensure she comes home”.

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

“The facts are that the famous athlete was detained in possession of prohibited medication containing narcotic substances,” Peskov told reporters.

“In view of what I’ve said, it can’t be politically motivated,” he added.

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

Russian news media have repeatedly raised speculation that she could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death”, who is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.

Russia has agitated 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 dealings in deadly weapons, could make such a swap unpalatable to the US.

Others have suggested that she could be traded in tandem with Paul Whelan, a former marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction that the United States has repeatedly described as a setup.

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