Brittney Griner trial resumes amid heightened diplomacy

By JIM HEINTZ
Associated press

MOSCOW (AP) — Since Brittney Griner last appeared in her cannabis possession trial, the question of her fate has escalated from a small, cramped courtroom on the outskirts of Moscow to the highest levels of Russian diplomacy. American.

The WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist returns to court on Tuesday, a month after the start of the trial in which she faces 10 years in prison if convicted. As the trial progressed, the Biden administration faced increased calls for action to secure his release.

In an extraordinary move, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov last week, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia for espionage, would be released.

Although the details of the offer remain under wraps, Blinken’s public announcement of a proposal was at odds with the convention of keeping prisoner release negotiations tightly secret. When American Trevor Reed, who was serving a sentence for assaulting a police officer, was released in April in exchange for a Russian drug trafficker, no hints of an imminent exchange had emerged.

The Lavrov-Blinken call was also the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops to Ukraine more than five months ago. Direct outreach risks undermining a key message to US allies that Russia’s isolation could force the eventual withdrawal of troops from Ukraine.

It also underscores the public pressure the White House faced to secure Griner’s release, which prompted backlash. Former President Donald Trump strongly criticized the proposal, which, according to people who knew him, would trade Griner and Whelan for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout.

“He’s absolutely one of the worst in the world, and he’s going to be released because a potentially spoiled person walks into Russia high on drugs,” Trump said.

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 refused to elaborate.

Griner, speaking from the defendant’s cage in a courtroom that barely holds a dozen people, admitted there were vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in his luggage when she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February. But she says 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 called character witnesses from his Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, and presented testimonies from doctors that he was prescribed cannabis as a treatment for pain. Medical cannabis treatment is not legal in Russia.

His lawyers say they hope the testimony will bring leniency from the judge, who they say under Russian law has leeway to consider mitigating factors.

Acquittals are rare in Russian criminal prosecutions – less than 1% of cases. Penalties can be suspended.

If a conviction is a fatality, it would also potentially be a step forward. Russian officials said no release of Griner could take place until the legal process was completed.

However, a Washington lawyer who previously served as a legal adviser at the US Embassy in Moscow said there was no formal requirement for a conviction before an exchange.

“If she is in fact being used as a political bargaining chip – and the administration has already designated her as wrongfully detained, presumably because they believe she is being used as a political pawn – they can impose a sentence. very cumbersome as a means of maximizing their influence in the negotiations,” the attorney, Tom Firestone, told The Associated Press.

He also said that given the Biden administration’s public commitment to securing Whelan and Griner’s release, Russia “might want to let this play out a bit longer and try to get more concessions.” “.

Russian officials gave no public indication as to whether Blinken had moved forward on his appeal with Lavrov, issuing only a statement urging the Americans to pursue the matter through “quiet diplomacy without disclosing speculative information.”

Russia has repeatedly expressed annoyance with US statements on the case, saying they show disrespect for Russian law.

——-

Eric Tucker in Washington DC contributed to this story.