Shackled and looking wary, WNBA star Brittney Griner was ordered Monday to stand trial by a court near Moscow on cannabis possession charges, about 4 1/2 months after her arrest at an airport while returning to play for a Russian team.
The Phoenix Mercury centre and two-time U.S. Olympic gold medallist also was ordered to remain in custody for the duration of her criminal trial, which was to begin Friday. Griner could face 10 years in prison if convicted on charges of large-scale transportation of drugs. Fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in the U.S., acquittals can be overturned.
At Monday's closed-door preliminary hearing at the court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, Griner's detention was extended for another six months, to December 20. Photos obtained by The Associated Press showed the 31-year-old in handcuffs and looking straight ahead, unlike a previous court appearance where she kept her head down and covered with a hood. She declined to answer questions from reporters in English as she was led through the courthouse, according to video shown in Russian media.
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Her detention and trial come at an extraordinarily low point in Moscow-Washington relations. Griner was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport less than a week before Russia sent troops into Ukraine, which aggravated already-high tensions with sweeping sanctions by the United States and Russia’s denunciation of U.S. weapon supplies to Ukraine.
Amid the tensions, Griner’s supporters had taken 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 U.S. government’s chief negotiator.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, urged President Joe Biden in May 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 later Monday. “It’s tough on our team. It is good to see her. See how she’s doing? I don’t know if she’s doing OK.
“At least we get to see an image of her. Hopefully with this trial happening quickly that some things will change and that President Biden will take the steps to ensure she comes home.”
Griner's supporters have encouraged a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought 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 on conviction of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
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Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the discrepancy between Griner’s case — she allegedly was found in possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil — and Bout’s global dealings in deadly weapons could make such a swap unpalatable to the U.S.
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 set-up.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, asked Sunday on CNN whether a joint swap of Griner and Whelan for Bout was being considered, sidestepped the question.
“As a general proposition ... I have got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,” he said. But “I can’t comment in any detail on what we’re doing, except to say this is an absolute priority.”