Basketball star Brittney Griner appeared in Russia on trial for drug smuggling

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American basketball player Brittney Griner, who was arrested in March at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, is escorted before a court hearing in Khimki, outside Moscow, Russia on July 1. 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
American basketball player Brittney Griner, who was arrested in March at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, is escorted before a court hearing in Khimki, outside Moscow, Russia on July 1. 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

After four and a half months of ordeal in a Russian preventive prison, the American basketball player Brittney Griner appeared this Friday in the trial for drug smuggling.

Griner, a double Olympic and world champion, arrived at the Khimki court in the Moscow region wearing a T-shirt with the face of legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix.

Before the watchful eyes of numerous cameras, the 2.06-meter player descended the stairs handcuffed to the wrist of a Russian agent wearing a bulletproof vest.

Considering that less than 1% of court decisions in Russia are acquittal, few believe that Griner will not be sentenced to up to ten years in prison.

A cage for the accused

Griner, 31, attended the hearing from inside a metal cell, popularly known in Russia as a “cage.”

Khimki, outside Moscow, Russia, on July 1, 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
Khimki, outside Moscow, Russia, on July 1, 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

Inside, a bottle of water and a box of cookies were waiting for her. Unlike in the previous hearings to prolong the precautionary measure, the basketball player, who no longer covered her face with the hood, seemed more animated.

However, he did not want to make any testimony. Neither to admit his guilt nor to defend his innocence.

The only thing he said is that he feels fine and that the biggest difficulties are his lack of knowledge of the language and the impossibility of training.

In addition to a couple of reporters – photographers and videographers were not allowed access – in the courtroom there was also Elizabeth Roodchargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Moscow.

The Russian Federation has wrongly detained Brittney Griner. We were able to speak with Griner in court today. He is doing well within the limits of the circumstances,” Rood said after the hearing.

Khimki, outside Moscow, Russia, on July 1, 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
Khimki, outside Moscow, Russia, on July 1, 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

After a period of rigorous silence, the US government condemned the arrest of Griner, who plays for the UGMK of Yekaterinburg, trained by the Spanish Miguel Méndez, national coach.

Two witnesses, customs officer and police

The judge questioned two witnesses who were at Sheremetyevo airport at the time of the arrest: a customs officer and a police officer.

The official, Lilia Belobrovova, admitted to being the person who found the cannabis oil in the hand luggage of the American traveler through the scanner. Next, she went through Griner’s bags by hand.

The testimony of the agent, who was the first to question the player with the help of an interpreter, took place behind closed doors.

Brittney Griner during the first half of Game 2 of the 2021 WNBA Finals at the Footprint Center.  Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Brittney Griner during the first half of Game 2 of the 2021 WNBA Finals at the Footprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

According to the Prosecutor’s Office, the agent’s statements included state secretsso its publication may represent a threat to him and his family.

The pivot can be condemned up to 10 years in prison, since in Russia it is prohibited by law to enter the country with cannabis.

The next hearing, where the testimonies of other witnesses will be heard, will be held on July 7, according to the court.

Arrested on the eve of war

Griner was arrested on February 17, a week before the start of the current “special military operation” in Ukraine, which has further clouded, if possible, relations between the Kremlin and the White House.

A month before the military campaign, the US authorities had already recommended that their nationals not travel to Russia.

Like other American players, Griner took advantage of the months when there is no WNBA competition to play in Europe, where she has a salary of more than a million dollars, four times more than the maximum in the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the media before the G7 summit in Berlin, Germany June 24, 2022. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the media before the G7 summit in Berlin, Germany June 24, 2022. REUTERS/Annegret Hilse

Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured that there is no “higher priority” than the release of Grinerjust like that of other Americans “illegally” detained abroad.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov denied that the imprisoned basketball player is a “hostage” and recalled that “there are many countries” where the introduction of narcotics is severely prosecuted by law.

Her arrest “cannot be politically motivated”, since “the famous athlete was arrested with prohibited substances that contained narcotics”, she said today in her daily telephone press conference.

A swap on the horizon

The family of the basketball player has addressed the president of the United States, Joe Bidenwho has been banned by the Kremlin from traveling to this country as part of its Russian response to Western sanctions.

FILE PHOTO: Brittney Griner of the United States gestures during a match against Australia at the Saitama Super Arena in their women's basketball quarterfinal match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Saitama, Japan, on August 4. 2021. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
FILE PHOTO: Brittney Griner of the United States gestures during a match against Australia at the Saitama Super Arena in their women’s basketball quarterfinal match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Saitama, Japan, on August 4. 2021. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Both the WNBA and the NBA have also turned. “We have to come together and do everything we can to quickly bring BG (Brittney Griner) home. Our voice as athletes is stronger when we are united”, said Lebron James, star of the Lakers.

At the time, Russian media reported that Russia and the United States were negotiating the exchange of the player for the Russian arms dealer Víktor But, known as the “merchant of death” and who is serving a sentence in a US prison.

Recently, Russia and the US exchanged US student Trevor Reed, sentenced to nine years in prison for resisting arrest, for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, sentenced in the US to 20 years for drug smuggling.

(With information from EFE)

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