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Brittney Griner testifies at her trial in Russia, describes ordeal

Brittney Griner in court in Moscow on Wednesday.  (Photo for The Washington Post/For The Washington Post)
By Robyn Dixon,Mary Ilyushina and Natalia Abbakumova Washington Post

RIGA, Latvia – WNBA star Brittney Griner faced the most crucial moment yet in her Moscow trial on drug charges Wednesday, giving evidence to a judge in a bid for leniency. She faces 10 years in prison in a case that has further strained U.S.-Russian relations, already badly damaged by the war in Ukraine.

Griner began her testimony by describing her arrest at a Moscow airport in February after customs officials found two cannabis vape cartridges in her baggage. Speaking to the court through an interpreter, she said that her rights were not read to her when she was taken into custody, which is required under Russian law.

She was told where to go through an interpreter, she said, but was not told what was happening. Officials told her to sign documents but did not explain what they were or the consequences of signing them.

Unaware she was being detained, she asked to leave the customs area to catch the next available flight, but was told she could not and had her passport taken.

In court, the basketball star wore a dark sweatshirt and held a bottle of water in the courtroom cage where defendants are secured in Russian trials. The judge gave Griner permission to give her testimony while sitting after she said that her neck hurt.

The Phoenix Mercury standout, who has played in a Russian league during the WNBA offseason, said she was given a drug test after she was detained and that no illegal drugs were found.

Griner testified that the translation she was offered during the Russian investigation, which lasted from February to May, was inadequate and often left her confused.

“I remember one time there was a stack of papers that [the translator] needed to translate for me,” she recalled. “He took a brief look and then said the exact words were, ‘Basically you are guilty.’”

Griner, who pleaded guilty to the charges earlier this month, told the court she knew she could not carry the cartridges into Russia and did not intend to bring them with her.

“I still don’t understand how they ended up in my bag,” she said. “I had no intention to break the law.” She added she was “rushed packing and stressed packing. … I was in a huge hurry.” She was also recovering from covid and needed to get tested before flying, she said, adding to the stress.

Under cross-examination by the prosecution, Griner was asked if she admitted to the crime, a key factor determining leniency in Russian courts.

“As they ended up in my bags by accident, I take responsibility, but I did not intend to smuggle or plan to smuggle [banned substances] to Russia,” she replied.

Griner testified that she needed the cannabis oil for pain and inflammation, having suffered many injuries in her career, including to her spine, knee and ankle. She said she was prescribed the cannabis oil by a doctor, adding that many athletes used it.

In Russia, carrying even small amounts of the substance is illegal. The prosecution argues that the 0.702 grams of cannabis found in the vape cartridges constituted a “significant” amount.

Griner was aware of a U.S. government warning not to fly to Russia because of tensions between Washington and Moscow, but she said she was determined not to let down her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg.

When her lawyers requested that she be allowed to call her family in the United States, the judge asked for a written motion.

One of her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, a partner at the Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm, said after the hearing that the motion had been submitted.

“It has been five months already, and she hasn’t had a chance to talk to her family. We asked the court to satisfy our motion because of her psychological state,” Blagovolina said.

Summing up the day in court, she said that Griner “explained to the court that she knows and respects Russian laws and never intended to break them.”

The trial will resume Tuesday.

Griner’s supporters in the United States say she is a Russian “hostage,” but senior Russian Foreign Ministry officials have warned that political and public pressure for her release in the United States would not help her cause. They have hinted that Russia may consider a prisoner swap, but only after her trial is complete.

Trevor Reed, a retired Marine who was convicted and jailed in Russia in 2019 for assaulting two Russian police officers and endangering their lives, said during an NBC interview that aired Tuesday that the Biden administration was not doing enough to free Griner and others. He denies any guilt and was brought home in an April prisoner swap.

The White House says that Griner is being held in “intolerable circumstances” and that it is doing everything possible to free her and other wrongfully detained prisoners, including Paul Whelan, a security consultant and ex-Marine arrested in 2018, convicted of spying in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He denies the charges, saying he was set up.

The United States’ efforts to free Griner and Whelan are being handled by the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

U.S. officials have declined to comment on any possible prisoner exchange, and Whelan’s case underscores the unpredictability of such deals. His conviction sparked rumors in Russian media of a possible prisoner swap, but nothing came of it.

His family was dismayed when Reed was freed before Whelan, who had spent more time in jail. Reed was exchanged for convicted Russian drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko.

Media speculation has grown about a possible prisoner swap involving Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year-sentence in Illinois for conspiring to kill U.S. nationals and selling weapons to terrorists. The Kremlin has been pushing for his release since his arrest in Thailand in 2008, claiming he was wrongfully convicted in a New York court in 2011.