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Brittney Griner trial begins in Moscow

WNBA star faces up to 10 years in prison

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(Screenshot courtesy of Russian television)

The trial of detained WNBA star Brittney Griner began on Friday in Moscow.

Russian media reports indicate authorities initially did not allow journalists into the court room, but two reporters were eventually able to enter. The Washington Post reported U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Elizabeth Rood and other American diplomats were present.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner, — after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department later determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 14 spoke with Cherelle Griner. White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan this week said he has also spoken with her.

Officials with the State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs on June 13 met with Brittney Griner’s teammates to discuss her detention and efforts to secure her release.

Brittney Griner on June 18 was unable to speak with her wife on their fourth anniversary because the phone at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow that she called went unanswered. A State Department spokesperson later admitted a “logistical error” prevented Brittney Griner from speaking with Cherelle Griner.

Brittney Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if she is convicted.

The Council for Global Equality and the Human Rights Campaign are among the dozens of advocacy groups who signed a letter to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris last week that urged them to do more to secure Brittney Griner’s release. The U.S. House of Representatives on June 24 approved a resolution that called upon Russia to immediately release her.

“Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained, unjustly detained and we have made that clear as an official determination of the U.S. government,” Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday. “Second, the Russian government should release her and allow her to be returned and reunited with her family and come home safe and sound.”

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Russia

Russian court convicts Brittney Griner

WNBA star sentenced to nine years in penal colony

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(Screenshot from Russian television)

A Russian court on Thursday found WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty of charges that she smuggled drugs into the country.

The court sentenced Griner to nine years in a Russian penal colony. Prosecutors had sought a 9 1/2-year prison sentence.

Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner — spoke in court earlier on Thursday.

“I had no intent on breaking any Russian law,” said Brittney Griner.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Brittney Griner after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department subsequently determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

Brittney Griner last month pleaded guilty to the drug smuggling charges.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying.

American officials have reportedly expressed a willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a prisoner swap.

“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” said President Joe Biden in a statement after Brittney Griner’s conviction and sentencing. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby during the White House’s daily press briefing described the sentence as “reprehensible in its scope” and stressed Griner “shouldn’t have even been on trial.”

“I certainly can’t get inside the head of a Russian judge,” said Kirby. “We have seen similar maximum sentences for drug charges of foreigners in Russia. Just historically speaking, foreigners that are arrested on drug charges and then convicted under their system tend to get much higher sentences than would be Russian citizens.”

Elizabeth Rood, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, described the verdict as “a miscarriage of justice” in a statement she read to reporters outside the court. Blinken in his own statement agreed.

“Today’s conviction and sentencing by a Russian court of U.S. citizen Brittney Griner to nine years in prison further compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention,” said Blinken. “This step puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns.”    

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a joint statement after the court announced its verdict and sentencing.

“Today’s verdict and sentencing is unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained,” reads the statement. “The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”

The Human Rights Campaign also condemned the conviction and sentencing.

“This sentencing is unjust, plain and simple,” tweeted HRC. “Brittney Griner deserves to be back home with her family and loved ones.”

Blinken said “nothing about today’s decision changes our determination that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained, and we will continue working to bring Brittney and fellow wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan home.”

“This is an absolute priority of mine and the department’s,” he stressed.

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Russia

U.S. offers a deal to Russia aimed at release of WNBA star Brittney Griner

Blinken indicates that the administration would like a response from Moscow

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Brittney Griner appears in Russian court room on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 (Screenshot/YouTube KPRC Houston,TX)

U. S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said today that the Biden Administration had offered the Russian government a deal to obtain the release of jailed WNBA star Brittney Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan.

The Secretary’s statement marked the first public acknowledgment that the American government had taken action to secure the release of Griner, who was arrested on drug-related charges at a Moscow airport last February.

Blinken did not offer details on the proposed deal, which was offered weeks ago, and it is unclear if it will be enough for Russia to release the Americans. But the public acknowledgment of the offer at a time when the U.S. has otherwise shunned Russia, reflects the mounting pressure on the administration over Griner and Whelan and its determination to get them home the Associated Press reported.

Blinken also indicated that the administration would like a response from Moscow.

Russia has for years expressed interest in the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer once labeled the “Merchant of Death,” who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 on charges that he schemed to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.

The AP also noted that Blinken said he had requested a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. U.S. officials said the desire for an answer on the prisoner offer was the primary, but not only, reason that the U.S. on Wednesday requested the call with Lavrov.

Griner, who faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs had appeared Wednesday in a Russian courtroom to testify on her own behalf.

Voice of America’s Moscow Bureau reported that the WNBA star admitted arriving in Russia in February with vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage, testifying during Wednesday’s hearing that a language interpreter provided to her translated only a fraction of what was being said as authorities arrested her.

Griner said she was offered neither an explanation of her rights as she was detained nor access to lawyers to explain the documents she signed.

During a Tuesday court session, a Russian neuropsychologist testified about worldwide use of medicinal cannabis, but the drug remains illegal in Russia. Griner’s lawyers have presented a U.S. doctor’s letter recommending that she use medical cannabis to treat pain, which she says she has sustained from her basketball career.

Griner’s U.S. supporters say she is being held as a political pawn, possibly for a prisoner swap. Russian officials say no exchange can be discussed until her legal proceedings are completed.

Additional reporting from Voice of America and the Associated Press

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Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug charges in Russia

WNBA star has been detained since February

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(Bigstock photo)

WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday pleaded guilty to charges that she smuggled drugs in Russia.

“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor, but there was no intent,” Griner told a Moscow judge during the second hearing in her trial that began last week, according to the New York Times. “I didn’t want to break the law.”

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner, — after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department has determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

Brittney Griner earlier this week pleaded directly to President Joe Biden to help secure her release. The White House on Tuesday received a letter signed by 1,200 Black women who urge the administration to bring Brittney Griner back to the U.S.

“The letter is support — support from a group of Black women who are trying to save another Black woman. It’s as simple as that,” Dawn Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and head basketball coach at the University of South Carolina, told the Washington Post. “I think about Brittney throughout the entire day, every day. I try to put myself in her shoes, and I’d want somebody fighting for me — people who won’t shut up.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network, on Tuesday also asked Biden to arrange a “prayer visit” for Brittney Griner.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday spoke with Cherelle Griner.

The White House in a statement said Biden read Cherelle Griner his response to her wife’s letter. U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Elizabeth Rood on Thursday told reporters outside court that she delivered the letter to Brittney Griner.

Brittney Griner faces up to 10 years in prison. 

Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Thursday said his government would only negotiate Brittney Griner’s potential release with the U.S. once the court issues its verdict.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken after Brittney Griner’s guilty plea reiterated the Biden administration remains committed to securing her release.

“We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” tweeted Blinken.

Caris White contributed to this story.

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