Brittney Griner arrived in Russia in February to play basketball, one of the sport’s biggest stars. She arrived in a courtroom outside Moscow on Friday as something entirely different — a potential bargaining chip in Russia’s tense standoff with the West over the war in Ukraine, described by supporters as a Kremlin hostage.
After more than four months languishing in a Russian prison and unable to speak Russian, Ms Griner, 31, went to trial on charges of vaping cartridges containing traces – 0.7 grams, the prosecutor said – of cannabis oil. have worn. In a justice system that rarely finds defendants other than guilty, she faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Ms. Griner’s arrest on February 17—a week before the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—snatched her into geopolitics as President Vladimir V. Putin faced a determined Western attempt to help Ukraine fight back. She has been touted in Russian state media as an asset that could be traded for a Russian arms dealer in a US prison.
While Russia’s drug laws can include severe penalties, a foreigner caught with a small amount usually faces no more than a month’s imprisonment, a fine and deportation, but Mr Putin’s government has a long history of using detention for international purposes. leverage, sometimes to obtain the release of a Russian detained abroad.
With little information to go on, Ms. Griner’s supporters are concerned about her physical and emotional health and how she is being treated — an openly gay, black American in a culturally conservative country that has passed anti-gay laws, has few black people. and sees the United States as his nemesis. They cite her linguistic isolation and the near certainty of being held in conditions not designed to accommodate her six-foot-tall frame.
“She tells me she’s fine,” her wife, Cherelle, who could only communicate with her through letters, said in a recent radio interview with the Rev. Al Sharpton. Cherelle Griner said Brittney Griner swore, “I won’t let them break me.”
But Brittney Griner is having a hard time, her wife said. “She’s human, she’s terrified there, she’s alone there,” Cherelle Griner said. “It’s not just that she can’t talk to her loved ones. She can’t talk to anyone because she doesn’t speak the language. It’s inhumane on all kinds of levels.”
In a courthouse in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Friday, Ms. Griner cut an incongruous figure, as always towering above all others as she was ushered in, her long, tattooed arms cuffed together and cuffed to the arm of a guard. For the first day of her trial, she wore a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and sneakers without laces.
She was in the defendant’s cage with a bottle of water and a bag of biscuits, and told a reporter that detention was difficult because of the language barrier and lack of exercise, Reuters reported. The session, which was held in Russian with a few journalists and three US embassy officials present, was quickly adjourned after some expected witnesses failed to show up. The trial will resume next Thursday.
A prosecutor told the court that Ms Griner was “sufficiently aware” that the transportation of narcotics to Russia was prohibited, according to Russia’s state news agency Tass. Ms. Griner said she understood the allegations but would provide her response to them later, the agency said.
Cherelle Griner and others have questioned whether the Biden administration is doing enough to secure the release of Brittney Griner, a view the State Department appeared determined to dispel on Friday. Elizabeth Rood, chargé d’affaires at the US embassy in Moscow, attended the trial and then spoke to reporters.
“I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Griner in court,” said Ms. Rood. “She is doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances and asked me to convey that she is in a good mood and keeping her faith.”
“The Russian Federation has improperly detained Ms. Griner,” she said, adding, “the US government at the very highest level is working very hard to bring Ms Griner and all falsely detained US citizens home safely.”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken tweeted“We – and I personally – have no higher priority than returning her and other wrongly detained Americans home.”
In a press conference on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov denied that the case was politically motivated, or that the government was even involved in it. “Only the court can make a decision,” he said.
But Russian state media reports indicate that Moscow sees Ms. Griner as a valuable asset in its confrontation with the United States, which is leading Western efforts to help Ukraine resist the Russian invasion. Tass reported in May that officials were in talks to trade Ms. Griner for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in a US federal prison for conspiracy to sell weapons to people who said they intended to kill Americans. murder.
In April, the Biden administration secured the release of Trevor R. Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was detained in Russia for two years on what his family said were trumped-up charges of assault, in exchange for a Russian pilot who was sentenced to a long prison term in the United States on charges of cocaine trafficking.
US officials have not confirmed any talks about exchanging Ms. Griner. The Kremlin has been pushing for Mr Bout’s release for years, but US officials are hesitant to take steps that could be seen as a threat to American security.
Photos and videos provided brief public glimpses of Ms. Griner arriving and departing in court. Fans are examining the images, which some have described as heartbreaking, for clues to her well-being in the expressions behind her round glasses.
Legal experts say the trial of Ms. Griner would almost certainly end in a conviction, despite calls in the United States for her release. Her lawyer, Aleksandr Boikov, said this week he expected the trial to take up to two months.
She has been detained in Correctional Colony No. 1, or IK-1, in the village of Novoye Grishino, 80 kilometers from central Moscow – a former orphanage converted ten years ago to hold women serving prison terms or awaiting trial. Video footage of the prison available online shows high gray walls, old prison bars and a rusty monument to Lenin in the courtyard.
Russian authorities have not disclosed Ms Griner’s whereabouts, but DailyExpertNews was able to identify the prison from a photo posted online by a visitor, and its location was confirmed by a person familiar with the case.
What you need to know about Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia
Every day looks about the same for Ms. Griner, said Yekaterina Kalugina, a journalist and member of a public prison monitoring group who visited Ms. Griner in prison. (She said Mrs. Griner’s prison mattress was too small for someone her size.)
The inmates wake up, have breakfast in their cells – usually some basic food – and then go for a walk in the prison courtyard, which is covered with a net. The rest of the day is filled with reading books — Ms Griner has read Dostoevsky in translation, for example — and watching television, although all channels are in Russian, Ms Kalugina said.
The cell has a separate laundry room, she said, something new for Russian prisons. They are only allowed to shower twice a week.
Thousands of Russian women passed through it, along with at least one other well-known foreigner: Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American arrested in April 2019 when Russian police said she had 9.5 grams – a third of an ounce – of marijuana in her luggage. while she was hooking up at an airport in Moscow.
Ms. Issachar was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for drug possession and smuggling, and Israeli officials and her family said the Kremlin had linked her fate to that of a Russian held in Israel. No exchange took place — Israel extradized the Russian detainee to the United States to face charges of computer crime — but Mr Putin, who was maintaining ties with Israel, pardoned Ms Issachar 10 months after she was arrested.
In a telephone interview from Israel, her mother, Yaffa Issachar, said her daughter had cried when she heard about Ms. Griner’s case and told her, “I know what she’s going through right now.”
The mother said Naama Issachar had been treated relatively well by her cellmates, but feared that Ms Griner, as a gay woman, would be treated worse because of Russia’s conservative stance and discriminatory laws against homosexuality.
Mrs. Ishaffar suggested that Mrs. Griner’s family find a priest who could visit her. “There’s someone watching them,” she said, “but at least it’s a human she can talk to.”
Ms. Griner, who plays center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, is a seven-time All-Star league, two-time Olympic gold medalist, and the first openly gay athlete to sign an endorsement contract with Nike.
But female basketball players are paid a fraction of what their male counterparts earn in the United States, so Ms. Griner, like many others, has also played off-season during the WNBA in overseas leagues where the contracts are much more lucrative. She played in China for two seasons and has been playing in Russia since 2014, for UMMC Yekaterinburg in the Urals.
On February 17, she landed at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, where her bags were searched. She never reached the Urals.
Reporting contributed by: Michael Crowley† Isabel Kershner† Jonathan Abrams and Tania Ganguli†