Brittney Griner’s trial on Russian drug charges opens in Moscow court

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RIGA, Latvia — American WNBA star Brittney Griner is scheduled to stand trial Friday on drug charges in a Moscow court after customs officials said they found vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her baggage at a Moscow airport in February, a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine .

Griner could face 10 years in jail if convicted of possessing a “significant amount” of hashish. She has been in custody since February and has been remanded in custody until December pending the outcome of her trial.

Her case has been complicated by the severe downturn in relations between Washington and Moscow. Griner’s supporters in the United States say she is a hostage and political pawn.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed these claims last week, saying that drug offenses are treated seriously in Russia and many other countries. “We cannot call her a hostage. Why should we call her a hostage?” he said.

“There are a number of countries that you cannot enter with drugs,” Peskov said. “It is also prosecuted under Russian law. Russia is not the only country in the world that has strict laws in this sense.”

Griner’s supporters in the United States have called on President Biden to negotiate a prisoner swap like one in April, when Russia exchanged former Marine Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year prison sentence in Connecticut for drug trafficking. Reed had been jailed for nine years after being convicted of assault endangering the lives of police officers.

Griner is one of two Americans that the State Department says are being wrongfully held by Russia. Former US Marine Paul Whelan has been in jail since December 2018, when he traveled to Moscow for a friend’s wedding and was arrested in his hotel room. He was jailed for 16 years after being convicted of spying in a closed trial. He denies the charges and calls the case political.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that freeing wrongfully held Americans such as Whelan and Griner was his highest priority.

“I’ve got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home, and that includes Paul Whelan and that includes Brittney Griner,” he said in an interview with CNN, declining to comment on whether the US government was seeking a prisoner exchange involving Whelan and Griner.

Russian media has speculated that Washington could exchange Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving 25 years in the United States for conspiring to sell surface-to-air missiles to a foreign terrorist group and conspiring to kill US citizens. Bout, the inspiration for the Nicholas Cage film “Lord of War,” allegedly smuggled arms to warlords in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia for years — sometimes arming both sides in a conflict — until his 2008 judgment in Thailand and 2010 extradition to the United States. Russia calls Bout’s judgment and conviction “unlawful and political” and has been demanding his release since 2008.

Everything you need to know about Brittney Griner in Russia

According to Russian customs officials, Griner was about to fly from Moscow to New York when a sniffer dog at Sheremetyevo International Airport “indicated that drugs may be in the carry-on luggage of a United States citizen,” a reference to Griner. Customs officials said they found vapes in her luggage, which were later analyzed and found to contain hashish oil. The customs agency posted video of the airport search apparently taken from surveillance cameras.

In early May, the State Department determined that Griner was being wrongfully held and shifted supervision of her case to Roger Carstens, presidential envoy for hostage affairs. The department has not elaborated on the basis for the judgment.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said at the time that the department weighed the circumstances in each case, “whether it’s the case of Brittney Griner, whether it’s the case of Paul Whelan, whether it’s the case of Americans in Iran. There are going to be unique factors in each and every one of those cases.”

Price said Griner was “fortunate to have a network who has supported her from day one,” adding that the department had worked closely with her backers.

About a month before the invasion of Ukraine, the State Department issued a level 4 security warning to Americans, stipulating “do not travel” to Russia because of the risk of arbitrary enforcement of the law and harassment by Russian officials, as well as tensions over Ukraine. It warned that State Department officials had a limited ability to help US citizens in Russia.

“Russian officials have unreasonably delayed US consular assistance to detained US citizens and have arrested US citizens on spurious charges, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting evidence,” the warning read.

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