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Brittney Griner returns to Russian court as lawyers plead for leniency

Escorted by a masked police officer with a dog, her wrists in handcuffs, American basketball star Brittney Griner appeared in a Russian court on Tuesday for another hearing in a trial that will likely end with her conviction in the middle of this month, the lawyers told her.

One of the best players of her generation, Ms. Griner has been caught up in a standoff between Russia and the United States over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As the case plays out in a courtroom, the dispute over Ms Griner’s fate is shifting increasingly into the diplomatic arena, with Russia and the United States signaling her possible involvement in a swap of high-profile Russians in US custody.

Last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said the U.S. government had “put a substantial proposal on the table,” though he declined to discuss the details. On Thursday, he discussed the issue with his Russian counterpart, Sergei V. Lavrov, in their first telephone conversation since the war in Ukraine. However, no major breakthroughs were reported and no progress is expected before Anna S. Sotnikova, a judge in the city of Khimki, near Moscow, issues a verdict in the case.

Ms. Griner, 31, was detained at a Moscow airport while traveling to Yekaterinburg, Russia, to play for a local team there about a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. Customs officers found two vapor cartridges containing less than a gram of hashish oil in her luggage.

However, the news of her detention did not become public until after the war began. He was charged with attempting to traffic a significant amount of illegal drugs into Russia, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Last month, Ms. Griner pleaded guilty to the charges, stressing that she did not intend to violate Russian law and that the illegal substance was in her luggage as a result of an oversight while packing in a hurry. In Russia, the guilty plea does not end the trial, and proceedings are expected to continue until mid-August, according to her legal team.

On Tuesday, Ms. Griner’s lawyers called an expert, who testified that the state’s analysis of the vapor tapes did not meet Russian legal requirements.

So “it would be wrong to determine the exact amount” of the illegal substance, said Aleksandr Boikov, Ms. Griner’s lawyer. According the Russian Criminal Codethe severity of the sentence depends, among other things, on the quantity of drugs discovered in the accused’s possession.

Ms. Griner’s legal team is trying to convince the judge to commute the final sentence. They had one of Ms. Griner’s Russian teammates, Yevgeniya Belyakova, testify, along with the team’s manager and doctor. Her legal team also argued that she was authorized to use medicinal cannabis in Arizona, where she has played for the Phoenix Mercury since 2013, to ease pain from injuries to her spine, ankle and knees.

During her own court testimony last week, Ms. Griner described how in detention she faced a confusing and sometimes confusing Russian legal system. Her rights were not explained to her and she was provided with a lawyer just 16 hours after her detention began, she said. Ms. Griner also said she was instructed to sign documents without an explanation of what they implied and that an interpreter, provided by law enforcement, had translated “almost nothing.”

The hearing was adjourned until Thursday, when both sides will present their closing arguments, said Maria Blagovolina, a lawyer with the firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners, which is also representing Ms. Griner.

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