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Brittney Griner, now a wartime bargaining chip, goes on trial in Russia

July 1, 2022 Updated Fri., July 1, 2022 at 9:22 p.m.

By Anton Troianovski and </p><p>Ivan Nechepurenko New York Times

American basketball star Brittney Griner went on trial in Russia on Friday, in a case that supporters say has turned one of her sport’s most decorated players into a wartime hostage of the Kremlin – a symbolically potent pawn as Russia looks for ways to push back against U.S. support for Ukraine.

Griner, 31, arrived in court in Khimki, outside Moscow, in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, more than four months after being detained in a Moscow airport for carrying what Russian officials said were vape cartridges bearing traces of hash oil in her luggage. The trial was quickly adjourned to Thursday after some witnesses failed to show up.

Griner – a seven-time WNBA All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first openly gay athlete signed to an endorsement contract by Nike – had come to Russia to play for a professional basketball team in the Urals, a way to supplement her income in the U.S. league’s offseason. But her arrest Feb. 17 – a week before the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – pulled her into the maw of geopolitics as President Vladimir Putin faced down a determined American-led Western effort to help Ukraine fight back against the Russian assault.

After attending the court session, Elizabeth Rood, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told reporters that she had spoken with Griner.

“She is doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances and asked me to convey that she is in good spirits and is keeping up the faith,” Rood said.

“The Russian Federation has wrongfully detained Ms. Griner,” she said, adding, “the U.S. government at the very highest levels is working very hard to bring Ms. Griner as well as all wrongfully detained U.S. citizens safely home.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter that he and the department “have no higher priority than bringing her and other wrongfully detained Americans” back home.

The Kremlin on Friday denied that the drug charges against Griner were politically motivated. Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, told a news conference that “the famous athlete was detained with illegal drugs that contained narcotic substances.”

“Only the court can pass a verdict,” he said, insisting the Kremlin had nothing to do with the case.

But reports in Russian state media indicate that Moscow sees Griner as a valuable asset in its confrontation with the United States. The state-run Russian news agency Tass, for instance, said in May that officials were in talks to exchange Griner for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in a U.S. federal prison for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.

U.S. officials have not confirmed any talks about exchanging Griner. The Kremlin has pressed for years for the release of Bout, but the Biden administration is reluctant to take any steps that could be seen as risking the safety of Americans.

Legal experts said her trial was all but certain to end in a conviction despite the clamor in the United States for her release. Aleksandr Boikov, Griner’s lawyer, said this week that he expected the trial to last up to two months. The drug charges that she faces carry a sentence of up to 10 years at a penal colony.

Griner traveled to Russia to play for UMMC Yekaterinburg, a powerhouse professional basketball team. Many WNBA players supplement their incomes in the league’s offseason by playing internationally, where top-tier athletes can draw salaries of around $1 million.

In the courtroom Friday, the prosecutor claimed that Griner was “aware enough” that transporting narcotics into Russia was forbidden, according to Tass. In response. Griner said that she understood the charges but would express her response to them later, the agency said.

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