US basketball star Griner is due in Russian court

By JIM HEINTZ
Associated Press

MOSCOW (AP) — More than four months after being arrested at a Moscow airport for possession of cannabis, American basketball star Brittney Griner is due in court Monday for a preliminary hearing ahead of her trial.

The Phoenix Mercury star, considered in some polls to be America’s most gifted female athlete, could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale drug trafficking. Less than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted and, unlike the United States, acquittals can be overturned.

A trial date has not been announced, but is expected soon; Griner was recently ordered to remain in pretrial detention until July 2. The hearing in the court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki is to address procedural issues.

Griner’s detention and trial come at an extraordinarily low point in Moscow-Washington relations. She was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport less than a week before Russia sent troops to Ukraine, adding to already high tensions with sweeping US sanctions and Russian exposure. US arms shipments to Ukraine.

Amid tensions, Griner supporters had kept a low profile in hopes of a quiet resolution, until May when the State Department reclassified her as wrongfully detained and transferred supervision of her case. to his special presidential envoy for hostage affairs – effectively the head of the US government. negotiator.

The move drew additional attention to Griner’s case, with supporters encouraging a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought home Navy veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of conspiracy to drug traffic.

Russian media have repeatedly speculated that she could be traded for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed ‘the dealer of death’, who is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill citizens. Americans and aiding a terrorist organization.

Russia has been agitating for years for Bout’s release. But the discrepancy between Griner’s case — she was allegedly found in possession of vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil — and Bout’s global dealings in lethal weapons could make such an exchange unpleasant in the United States.

Others have suggested she could be traded in tandem with Paul Whelan, a former naval and security director serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction the United States has repeatedly described as a set up.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who asked on CNN on Sunday whether a joint trade of Griner and Whelan for Bout was being considered, dodged the question.

“As a general proposition … I have no higher priority than getting Americans who are illegally detained in one way or another around the world to return home,” he said. declared. But “I can’t comment in detail on what we’re doing except to say it’s a top priority.”

Any swap would apparently require Griner to be convicted and sentenced first, then seek a presidential pardon, Maria Yarmush, a lawyer specializing in international civil cases, told the Kremlin-funded RT TV channel.