Brittany Griner back in Russian court on cannabis charges

Khimki, Russia (AP) — Brittany Griner returned to court Tuesday to plead for cannabis possession amid US diplomatic efforts to secure her release.

If convicted, the WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist could face 10 years in prison. As his trial progressed, the Biden administration faced increasing public pressure to release him.

In an extraordinary move, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken last week spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal that would see Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on charges of espionage Was gone, will be free.

The Lavrov-Blinken call marked the highest level of known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops to Ukraine more than five months ago, direct outreach at odds with US efforts to isolate the Kremlin.

People familiar with the proposal say it envisions Griner and Whelan trading for notorious arms dealer Victor Bout. It underscores the public pressure the White House has faced to release Griner.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Monday that Russia has “bad faith” in the US government’s proposal, a counter-proposal that US officials do not consider serious. He declined to elaborate.

Griner has admitted that when he was arrested at Moscow airport in February, he had a vape canister containing cannabis oil in his luggage. But she insisted she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage as she was packing in haste. Griner played for a Russian women’s basketball team in the WNBA off-season.

To strengthen her case, her defense lawyers testified to doctors that she had been given cannabis as a treatment for pain. Medical marijuana treatment is not legal in Russia.

While judges have the leeway to consider mitigating factors under Russian law, acquittals are rare and account for less than 1% of cases in Russian criminal trials.

However, a conviction could potentially pave the way for Griner’s exchange as Russian officials said it could only happen after the judicial process is complete.

Washington lawyer Tom Firestone, who previously worked as a legal adviser at the US embassy in Moscow, said Griner could be given a tougher sentence for the Russians “to maximize their gains in the talks”. He told The Associated Press that Russia “want to let this game go on a little longer and try to make more concessions.”

Russian officials scoffed at US statements about the case, saying they showed disrespect for Russian law. They were poker-faced, urging Washington to discuss the issue through “quiet diplomacy without releasing speculative information”.

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Eric Tucker in Washington DC contributed to this story.

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