KHIMKI, Russia (AP) — Brittney Griner was back in court Tuesday for her cannabis possession trial amid U.S. diplomatic efforts to secure her release.
If convicted, the WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist could face up to 10 years in prison. As her trial progressed, the Biden administration faced increasing public pressure to have her released.
In an extraordinary move, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke last week with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia for espionage, would be released.
The Lavrov-Blinken call marked the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops to Ukraine more than five months ago, direct outreach at odds with US efforts to isolate the Kremlin .
People familiar with the proposal say she plans to trade Griner and Whelan for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout. This underscores the public pressure the White House faced to secure Griner’s release.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Monday that Russia had responded in “bad faith” to the US government’s offer, a counter-offer that US officials do not consider to be serious. She declined to elaborate.
Griner admitted there were vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February. But she insisted she had no criminal intent and the canisters ended up in her luggage because she was packing in a hurry. Griner played for a Russian women’s basketball team during the WNBA offseason.
To bolster his case, his defense attorneys presented testimonies from doctors that he was prescribed cannabis as a treatment for pain. Medical cannabis treatment is not legal in Russia.
While judges are free to consider mitigating circumstances under Russian law, acquittals are rare and represent less than 1% of cases in Russian criminal prosecutions.
A conviction, however, could potentially pave the way for Griner’s trade, as Russian officials have said that could only happen once the legal process is complete.
Tom Firestone, a Washington attorney who previously served as a legal adviser at the US Embassy in Moscow, said Griner could face a harsh sentence so the Russians “maximize their influence in the negotiations”. He told The Associated Press that Russia “might want to let this play out a bit longer and try to get more concessions.”
Russian officials scoffed at US statements on the case, saying they showed disrespect for Russian law. They remained unmoved, urging Washington to discuss the issue through “quiet diplomacy without disclosing speculative information.”
Eric Tucker in Washington DC contributed to this story.