Imprisoned WNBA star Brittney Griner was pictured in a Russian courtroom on Monday for a preliminary hearing ahead of her trial for allegedly carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil through Moscow airport security last February.
The dread-locked, 6-foot-9 center towered over prison guards as she was escorted into the courtroom in Khimki on the outskirts of Moscow.
Griner, a Phoenix Mercury star considered by many to be among the top female athletes in the world, could face 10 years in prison if convicted on charges of large-scale transportation of drugs. Fewer than 1 percent of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in the U.S., acquittals can be overturned.
The trial date has not been announced, but is expected soon; Griner was recently ordered to remain in pretrial detention until July 2. Monday’s hearing in the court of the Moscow suburb of Khimki was to address procedural issues. Her trial is set to begin Friday.
A spokesperson for Griner’s representatives did not immediately respond to DailyMail.com’s request for comment.
Griner’s detention and trial come at an extraordinarily low point in Moscow-Washington relations. She was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport less than a week before Russia sent troops into Ukraine, which aggravated already-high tensions with sweeping sanctions by the United States and Russia’s denunciation of U.S. weapon supplies to Ukraine.
Amid the tensions, Griner’s supporters had taken a low profile in hopes of a quiet resolution, until May, when the State Department reclassified her as wrongfully detained and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs – effectively the U.S. government’s chief negotiator.
That move has drawn additional attention to Griner’s case, with supporters encouraging a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought home Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.
Russian news media have repeatedly raised speculation that she could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed ‘The Merchant of Death,’ who is serving a 25-year sentence on conviction of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the discrepancy between Griner’s case – she allegedly was found in possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil – and Bout’s global dealings in deadly weapons could make such a swap unpalatable to the U.S.
Others have suggested that she could be traded in tandem with Paul Whelan, a former Marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction that the United States has repeatedly described as a set-up.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, asked Sunday on CNN whether a joint swap of Griner and Whelan for Bout was being considered, sidestepped the question.
‘As a general proposition … I have got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,’ he said. But ‘I can’t comment in any detail on what we’re doing, except to say this is an absolute priority.’
Any swap would apparently require Griner to first be convicted and sentenced, then apply for a presidential pardon, Maria Yarmush, a lawyer specializing in international civil affairs, told Kremlin-funded TV channel RT.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s spokesman Dmitry Peskov refuted the suggestion Griner’s detention amounts to political imprisonment.
In an exclusive interview with NBC News that aired June 20, Peskov claimed Griner is only being held captive for breaking the law.
And he equated her predicament with, ‘hundreds and hundreds of Russian citizens that were sentenced for carrying hashish.’
‘Why should we make an exemption for a foreign citizen?’ Peskov argued.
Griner, 31, was detained at a Moscow airport on February 17 after authorities there said a search of her bag revealed vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.
NBC News’ Keir Simmons observed that the US government is essentially treating Griner’s detention like a hostage situation, but Peskov dodged.
‘She violated Russian law, and now she’s being prosecuted,’ Peskov told NBC. ‘It’s not about being a hostage. There are lots of American citizens here. They’re enjoying their freedoms … but you have to obey the laws.’
The top Kremlin spokesman added that he strongly disagreed with the State Department’s reclassification in May of Griner’s arrest as ‘wrongfully detained.’
During the interview, Peskov also said that Alexander Drueke and Andy Huynh, two Americans captured in Ukraine while fighting against the Kremlin invasion, had ‘endangered’ Russian soldiers and should be ‘held accountable for those crimes.’
When pressed on what crimes the Americans had committed, Peskov admitted their specific offenses were not yet known but claimed that they would not be covered by the Geneva conventions on prisoners of war because they were not part of the Ukrainian Army.
When asked to comment on the potential ‘terrible message’ sent by Griner’s imprisonment after she traveled to join the Russian Premier League during the WNBA offseason, Peskov disregarded the criticism.
‘It is also a terrible message to bring some forbidden essences and materials to this country,’ he said.
A phone call between Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, was rescheduled after an earlier attempt to connect on the couple’s anniversary failed because of an ‘unfortunate mistake,’ Biden administration officials said last week.
Griner was to have spoken with her wife on Jun 18, the couple’s fourth anniversary, for the first time since her arrest in Russia in mid-February.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the call could not be completed because of a ‘logistical error’ that officials have worked quickly to fix so that a new call can take place.
The call was to have been routed through the American embassy in Russia, which was to have patched the conversation through.
Cherelle Griner said on Monday that she learned that her wife had tried 11 times to call her through the embassy by dialing a number that she had been given, but that no one picked up because that particular desk was unstaffed on Saturday.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the State Department was working to arrange a new call but did not say when that would be.
Griner won Olympic gold medals with the US national teams in 2016 and 2021 and is a seven-time All-Star who also plays for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA but was drawn to the Russian league for the higher salaries.
The US State Department said the 31-year-old has been ‘wrongfully detained’ since Russian officials accused her of drug smuggling.
The WNBA has acknowledged Griner’s absence this season in a number of ways, including social media posts from many players and the league placing a decal with her initials and number on the home floor of all 12 of that league’s teams.
In early May, Griner’s case was handed off to the US Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA), which negotiates the release of hostages and other Americans deemed wrongfully detained.
The allegations against Griner have not been proven in court, and several public officials have accused the Russian government of bringing false charges against Griner and other imprisoned Americans.
The Olympian pleaded not guilty to the charges in a Moscow court.
After repeated requests, a State Department official in Moscow was granted consular access to Griner last month and the basketball player, who was the first draft pick for the WNBA, was in ‘good condition.’
‘We were able to check on her condition, we will continue to work very closely with her legal team, with her broader network, to see to it that she is treated fairly,’ a representative said at the time.
‘Our official found Brittney Griner to be in good condition and we will continue to do everything we can to see to it that she is treated fairly throughout this ordeal.’
Her only issue was that the prison beds in the jail were reportedly too short for her 6-foot-9 frame.