Brittney Griner returns to Russian court on cannabis charges

American basketball star Brittney Griner returned to court on Tuesday for her cannabis possession trial amid US diplomatic efforts to secure her release.

During the hearing, prosecutors called in a state narcotics expert who analyzed cannabis found in Griner’s luggage. His defense presented a specialist who questioned the analysis, claiming that it was flawed and did not conform to the official rules.

Griner was escorted to court in handcuffs and placed inside a cage at the trial in Khimki, a city on the northern edge of Moscow. While in the cage, he showed personal photos.

The trial was adjourned until Thursday, when closing statements are scheduled.

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

In an extraordinary move, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke last week with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American jailed in Russia for a conviction for espionage, they would be released.

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

People familiar with the proposal say it envisions swapping Griner and Whelan for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout. It underscores the public pressure the White House has faced to secure Griner’s release.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Russia has responded in “bad faith” to the US government’s offer, a counteroffer that US officials do not consider serious. She declined to give more details.

Griner acknowledged that there were vaporizer bottles containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February. But she insisted that she had no criminal intent and that the cans ended up in her luggage because she was packing in a hurry. Griner played for a Russian women’s basketball team in the WNBA offseason.

To bolster his case, his defense attorneys have presented testimony from doctors that he was prescribed cannabis as a pain treatment. Medical marijuana treatment is not legal in Russia.

“There are many factors that the court will take into account,” Griner’s attorney, Maria Blagovolina, told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing, adding that Griner “admitted that he did bring something, but we need to know what he brought.”

While judges are free to consider mitigating factors under Russian law, acquittals are rare, accounting for less than 1% of cases in Russian criminal trials.

However, a conviction could pave the way for the Griner swap, as Russian officials said it could only happen after the court process is complete.

Tom Firestone, a Washington lawyer who previously served as legal counsel at the US Embassy in Moscow, said Griner could receive a harsh sentence as a way for the Russians to “maximize their leverage in the negotiations.” He told The Associated Press that Russia “might want to let this play out a little bit more and try to get more concessions.”

Russian officials have scoffed at US statements on the case, saying they show a lack of respect for Russian law. They remained poker-faced, urging Washington to discuss the issue through “calm diplomacy without the release of speculative information.”

Asked about the latest White House comment on the Russian counteroffer, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov offered no details.

“Any exchange of information on the subject must be discreet, without any ‘loudspeaker diplomacy,'” he told reporters. “The public exchange of positions will not yield any results.”

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