WNBA star and two-time Olympian Brittney Greener is set to return to court on Tuesday, a month into her trial, which could face 10 years in prison if found guilty of possession of cannabis.
As the trial progressed, her case moved from a small Moscow courtroom to the highest diplomatic levels as the Biden administration faced mounting calls to action to secure her release.
Last week, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, urging him to agree to a deal that would see Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, released.
Although the details of the offer remain hidden, Blinken’s public announcement of the offer was in conflict with an agreement to keep negotiations for the release of the prisoners under wraps.
When American Trevor Reid, who is serving time for assaulting a police officer, was exchanged for a Russian drug dealer on Friday in April, there were no hints of an imminent exchange.
No criminal intent, says Griner
The Lavrov-Blinken call was also the most famous high-level contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops into Ukraine more than five months ago. Direct contact risks undermining the core message to US allies that isolating Russia could lead to a permanent withdrawal from Ukraine.
It also highlights the public pressure the White House faced to secure Griner’s release, which caused some backlash.
Former President Donald Trump has sharply criticized the offer, which people familiar with him say would involve trading Griner and Whelan for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout.
“He is absolutely one of the worst in the world and will be given freedom because a potentially corrupted person is going to Russia loaded with drugs,” Trump said.
Speaking from a defendant’s cell in a courtroom that barely seats a dozen people, Griner admitted she had cannabis oil e-cigarette canisters in her luggage when she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February.
But she said that she had no criminal intent, and the canisters ended up in her luggage because she was in a hurry. In the WNBA off-season, Griner played for the Russian women’s basketball team.
To bolster her case, her lawyers called witnesses from her Russian team, UMMC Yekaterinburg, and presented doctors’ testimony that she had been prescribed cannabis as a pain reliever. Medical treatment with marijuana is illegal in Russia.
Her lawyers say they hope such testimony will bring leniency to the judge, who they say has free rein under Russian law to consider extenuating circumstances.
Acquittals in Russian criminal prosecutions are rare and account for less than 1% of cases. Sentences may be suspended.
Griner is a political trump card
If a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion, this may also be a step forward. Russian officials have said Griner’s release is not possible until the trial is over.
However, the Washington attorney, who previously served as legal counsel for the US Embassy in Moscow, said there was no formal requirement for a guilty verdict before the exchange.
“It looks like she’s actually being used as a political bargaining chip – and the administration has already found her wrongfully detained, presumably because they think she’s being used as a political pawn,” Tom Firestone told AP.
“Given the administration’s very strong public commitment to freeing Whelan and Griner, [Russia] may want to keep this going a little longer and try to get more concessions from the administration,” he said.
“They may impose very heavy sanctions to maximize their influence in the upcoming negotiations.”
Russian officials gave no public hints as to whether Blinken was making progress in his conversation with Lavrov. He only issued a statement urging Americans to address the issue through “quiet diplomacy without releasing speculative information.”
Russia has repeatedly expressed its annoyance at the US statements in this case, saying they show disrespect for Russian laws.