KHIMKI, Russia (Reuters) – U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner returns to a Russian court on Thursday as her drugs trial grinds towards a finale that could end with a 10-year prison sentence and a U.S.-Russia prisoner swap for one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
Cannabis is illegal in Russia for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
The cartridges threw the 31-year-old Texan athlete into the geopolitical maelstrom triggered when President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
During the most strained U.S.-Russian relations since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden is under pressure to intervene on behalf of detained Americans – including Griner.
The United States has said Griner was wrongfully detained and made what Secretary of State Antony Blinken called a “substantial offer” to Moscow to exchange Russian prisoners for American citizens held in Russia, including Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan.
One source familiar with the situation said that Washington was willing to exchange convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, whose life helped inspire the 2005 Hollywood film Lord of War, starring Nicholas Cage.
Russian officials have said a deal has not been reached. They argue that Griner violated the country’s laws and should be judged accordingly.
The Kremlin has also repeatedly warned Washington against resorting to megaphone diplomacy, or negotiations conducted through press releases. They say this strategy could derail the swap.
Griner’s lawyer said on Tuesday that the trial should end very soon and that once the court renders a verdict, a swap between Russia and the United States would become legally possible.
Griner, who pleaded guilty but denied intending to break Russian laws, has shown little emotion in court. Her lawyer said on Tuesday that Griner was both nervous and focused as the trial neared its end.
Wearing round-rimmed glasses and athletic clothing at every hearing, Griner listened to the proceedings via a translator and spoke quietly to her lawyers through the bars of the defendant’s cage at the Khimki District Court outside Moscow.
Before taking a seat, Griner held up personal photographs, including many of her wife Cherelle, whom Biden called last month to assure that Washington was working to secure Briner’s release.
Griner had flown to Russia to join her team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, for the playoffs after spending time at home in the United States. Griner played in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League during the WNBA offseason.
In her testimony last week, Griner expressed puzzlement as to how the vape cartridges had ended up in her luggage.
“I still don’t understand to this day how they ended up in my bag,” she told the court on July 27. “If I had to guess on how they ended up in my bags, I was in a rush packing.”
Griner had been prescribed medical marijuana in the United States for chronic injury pain, a treatment method that is common among elite athletes because it has fewer side effects than some painkillers.
(Reporting by Reuters; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Josie Kao)