KHIMKI, Russia (AP) — American basketball star Brittney Griner was back in court Tuesday for her trial on cannabis possession amid diplomatic efforts by the U.S. to secure her release.
During the hearing, prosecutors called a state drug expert who analyzed the cannabis found in Griner’s luggage. Her defense called for an expert who disputed the analysis, charging that it was flawed and did not comply with official rules.
Griner was escorted into court in handcuffs and placed in a cage at the trial in Khimki, a city on the northern edge of Moscow. While in the cage he kept personal photos.
The trial was adjourned until Thursday, when closing statements were scheduled.
If convicted, the WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist faces up to 10 years in prison. As her trial progressed, the Biden administration faced mounting public pressure to release her.
In an extraordinary move, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke last week to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges , they would be released.
The Lavrov-Blinken call marked the highest known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops to Ukraine more than five months ago, the immediate approach at odds with US efforts to isolate the Kremlin.
People familiar with the proposal say it calls for Griner and Whelan to be traded for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout. It underscores the public pressure the White House has faced to free Griner.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Monday that Russia responded “in bad faith” to the US government’s offer, a counteroffer that US officials do not consider serious. He declined to give further details.
Griner admitted to having vapor containers containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she was arrested at a Moscow airport in February. But she insisted she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage because she was packing in a hurry. Griner played for a Russian women’s basketball team in the WNBA in the off-season.
To bolster her case, her defense attorneys presented testimony from doctors that she was prescribed cannabis as a pain reliever. Medical marijuana treatment is not legal in Russia.
“There are many factors that will be considered by the court,” Griner’s lawyer Maria Blagovolina told reporters after Tuesday’s hearing, adding that Griner “admitted that she brought something, but we need to know what she brought.”
While judges have leeway to consider mitigating factors under Russian law, acquittals are rare and account for less than 1% of cases in Russian criminal prosecutions.
A conviction, however, could potentially pave the way for Griner’s exchange, which Russian officials have said could happen only after the court process is complete.
Tom Firestone, a Washington lawyer who previously served as a legal adviser at the US Embassy in Moscow, said Griner could receive a harsh sentence as a way for the Russians to “maximize their negotiating leverage”. He told The Associated Press that Russia “might want to let this go on a little longer and try to extract more concessions.”
Russian officials have derided US statements on the case, saying they show disrespect for Russian law. They remained poker-faced, urging Washington to discuss the issue through “quiet diplomacy without disclosure of speculative information.”
Asked about the White House’s latest comment on the Russian counterproposal, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not elaborate.
“Any exchange of information on the matter should be discreet without any ‘loudpeak diplomacy,'” he told reporters. “Public exchange of positions will not yield any results.”
Eric Tucker in Washington and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.