MOSCOW (AP) — Since Brittany Griner last appeared in her cannabis possession trial, the question of her fate has spread from a small and cramped courtroom on the outskirts of Moscow to the highest level of Russia-US diplomacy.
The WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist is due to return to court on Tuesday, a month after the start of the trial, which could face 10 years in prison if convicted. As the trial progressed, the Biden administration faced increasing calls for action to seek his release.
In an extraordinary move, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken last week spoke to Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal that would see Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia accused of espionage , will be free.
Although the details of the proposal are hidden, Blinken’s public announcement of the proposal was contrary to the tradition of keeping prisoner-release negotiations tightly under wraps. When American Trevor Reid, serving time for assaulting a police officer, was freed in April in exchange for a Russian drug smuggler, no clue of an impending swap was revealed.
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. The direct outreach risks undermining a core message to US allies that isolating Russia could lead to a withdrawal of troops from Ukraine.
It also underscores the public pressure the White House has faced to release Griner, prompting some backlash. Former President Donald Trump strongly criticized the proposal, saying people familiar with it imagined Griner and Whelan trading for notorious arms dealer Victor Bout.
“He is absolutely one of the worst people in the world, and he will be given his freedom because a potentially bad person gets loaded up with drugs in Russia,” Trump said.
Griner, speaking from the defendant’s cage in a courtroom that houses barely a dozen people, has admitted that vape canisters containing cannabis oil were in his luggage when he was arrested at Moscow airport in February. But she says she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage because 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 have called character witnesses from her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, and presented testimony from doctors that she was prescribed cannabis as a treatment for pain. Medical marijuana treatment is not legal in Russia.
His lawyers say he expects such testimony to soften the part of the judge, who they say is exempt under Russian law from considering mitigating factors.
Acquittals in Russian criminal trials are rare – in less than 1% of cases. The sentence may be suspended.
If the conviction is a foregone conclusion, it would potentially be a step forward as well. Russian officials have said Griner may not be released until the judicial process is over.
However, a Washington-based lawyer, previously a legal adviser at the US Embassy in Moscow, said there was no formal need for a conviction before the exchange.
Tom Firestone told the Associated Press, “It looks like he’s actually being used as a political bargaining chip — and the administration has already unfairly detained him because they think he’s a political bargaining chip.” being used as a political pawn.”
“Given the administration’s very strong public commitment to ousting Wellen and Griner, (Russia) may want to let this game go a little longer and try to get more concessions from the administration.” They said. “They may impose a very important restriction as a way of maximizing their advantage in the negotiations going forward.”
Russian officials have given no public indication of whether Blinken had made progress in his calls with Lavrov. It only issued a statement urging Americans to pursue the matter though “quiet diplomacy without releasing speculative information.”
Russia has repeatedly expressed displeasure with US statements on the matter, saying they show disrespect for Russian laws.
Eric Tucker in Washington DC contributed to this story.