Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug charges in Russian court

Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Russian court on Thursday as wrangling over the fate of the American basketball star...


Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Russian court on Thursday as wrangling over the fate of the American basketball star shifted increasingly to the diplomatic arena – a daunting prospect for supporters of Mrs. Griner amid the rift between America and Moscow over the war in Ukraine.

Appearing before a judge outside the Russian capital on the second day of her trial, Ms Griner said she had unwittingly transported a banned substance into the country because she had hastily packaged it. Russian authorities say they found vaping cartridges containing 0.7 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage when Ms Griner arrived in February to play basketball, and she was detained since then faces 10 years in prison in a penal colony.

“I would like to plead guilty, Your Honor. But there was no intention. I didn’t mean to break the law,” Ms Griner said in English, which was later translated into Russian, according to a Reuters reporter in the courtroom.

Ms Griner told the court she would say more the day after her trial, scheduled for July 14. She is charged with possession of illegal drugs and smuggling a “significant quantity”.

By pleading guilty, Ms Griner has potentially expedited the conclusion of her case, paving the way for a deal with the United States or, perhaps, a request for leniency.

With a guilty verdict almost inescapable in a Russian legal system that heavily favors the prosecution, his best hope, experts say, is for the Biden administration to secure his freedom by releasing a Russian detained in the United States. The name of one prisoner in particular emerged: Victor Bouta Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence.

But such a negotiation can only take place after the formalities of the Griner trial are completed, according to Russian officials.

“It is clear that we have not completed the necessary legal proceedings,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei A. Ryabkov told Russian news agencies on Thursday when asked about a possible exchange. “Until that happens, there is no nominal, formal or procedural ground for any further action. »

US officials insist they are doing everything they can to secure the release of Ms Griner, 31, a seven-time WNBA All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first openly gay athlete to sign an endorsement contract by Nike. During Thursday’s hearing, ChargĂ© d’Affaires at the US Embassy in Moscow, Elizabeth Rood, presented Ms. Griner with a letter from President Biden.

“Ms. Griner was able to read this letter,” Ms. Rood told reporters outside the courtroom. all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained.”

But with tensions between the United States and Russia at their worst in decades due to President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Biden has few options to secure his freedom. This was underscored by Mr Ryabkov on Thursday as he made some of the most detailed comments of any Russian official on Ms Griner’s case in the nearly five months she has been in custody.

“The hype and publicity, despite all the love for this genre among modern politicians, only stand in the way in this particular case,” Ryabkov said. “It not only distracts from the case, but creates interference in the truest sense of the word. That’s why silence is needed here.

He did, however, hint that Moscow was interested in negotiating over Ms Griner’s fate, saying it would be helped by “a serious reading by the American side of the signals they received from Russia, from Moscow, through specialized channels “.

Mr. Ryabkov did not specify what those signals were, although Russian state media have suggested that the Kremlin may be interested in swapping the American athlete for Mr. Bout, 55, a former Soviet military officer who has made a fortune in the global arms trade before he was caught in a federal sting operation.

Without a deal, Ms Griner could face years in prison.

Arseny Levinson, a Russian lawyer involved in cases similar to Ms Griner’s, said her case was “absurd” as she clearly had no criminal intent. But while his prosecution has political overtones, in many ways it is typical of Russia, where the law enforcement system “often mimics the fight against drug trafficking,” Levinson said.

In most cases, Mr. Levinson said, Russian courts would grant suspended sentences to those accused of Ms. Griner’s crime. But his outlook may be bleaker, he said, because suspended sentences against non-citizens are harder to enforce.

“Generally, foreigners get much harsher sentences than Russians,” said Levinson, who works for a nonprofit group that helps suspects of drug-related crimes.

A Russian official noted earlier this week that there was a path Ms Griner could follow. “Nobody is stopping Brittney Griner from using the appeals process and also asking for leniency,” a Foreign Office spokesperson said.

Hours after his guilty plea on Thursday, it appeared his advisers could be laying the groundwork for it.

“Given the nature of his case, the insignificant amount of BG’s substance and personality, and his positive contributions to world and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating and that there will be no serious punishment,” his legal team said in a statement.

Even if the United States and Russia agree to an exchange to bring Ms Griner home, such a deal could take years to materialize. Trevor R. Reed, an ailing former U.S. Marine detained in Russia on what his family believed to be trumped-up assault charges, was released in April in an exchange of prisoners more than two years after his arrest.

Former Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a former ambassador to the United Nations who spent years working to secure the release of hostages through his nonprofit, has been involved in months of diplomacy discreet but intense to free Mr. Reed. Mr Richardson is now working on the case of Ms Griner, as well as that of a former Marine, Paul Whelan, detained in Russia since 2018.

Mickey Bergman, executive director of the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, said in an email that Ms Griner’s guilty plea was understandable. “We believe that any prisoner in a situation like this should do what they think can help them survive the ordeal,” Mr Bergman said in an email. “She is fighting for her life.

Ms Rood, the US diplomat who attended Thursday’s court proceedings, said Ms Griner told her that “she eats well, she is able to read books”.

“Under the circumstances, she is fine,” Ms Rood said.

Ms Griner’s lawyer, Aleksandr Boikov, said in a comment via a messaging app that his client told the court on Thursday that she was “unwittingly transporting banned substances to Russia”.

“She was packing in a hurry,” he said in a phone interview. “Cartridges appeared in his luggage due to negligence.”

After her the trial started last weekMrs Griner sent a handwritten letter to Mr. Biden asking him not to “forget” her and other American detainees overseas.

On Wednesday, Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Mrs. Griner’s wifeCherelle Griner, according to a statement published by the White House. During the call, the statement said, the president read a draft of a letter he planned to send to Brittney Griner. He also said his administration was pursuing “every means to bring Brittney home.”

Cherelle Griner had publicly expressed frustration with Mr. Biden and the efforts of his administration to secure the release of his wife.

In a statement on Wednesday, Cherelle Griner said she was grateful to Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris “for the time they spent with me and for the commitment they expressed in bringing BG home.”

The United States government has classified Brittney Griner as “wrongfully detainedand said it would work to secure his release regardless of the outcome of the trial.

Brittney Griner’s WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, held a rally in support of her on Wednesday.

“What I feel today and what I feel today is a deeper emotion than hurt,” Cherelle Griner said at the rally. “I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated that it’s been 140 days since my wife was able to speak to me, our family, our friends. I’m frustrated that my wife isn’t getting justice. I know you’re all frustrated also, that’s why you’re here.

Cherelle Griner asked those at the rally, a few hundred fans according to The Associated Press, to make sure the Biden administration knows “it has our support to do whatever it takes” to bring his wife back to the House.

Brittney Griner’s communication with her family and friends in the United States was limited to letters. Recently, one of her Mercury teammates, forward Brianna Turner, wrote to her, reminiscing about their time together. “One of my favorite moments wasn’t even on the court,” Ms Turner said. “We went to Indiana and rented Lime scooters and drove around downtown.”

Ms. Turner also told her teammate that she would be an honorary All-Star this season. Because Ms. Griner has been detained since February, she has not played in the WNBA this season.

“And BG has a great sense of humor – she told me she’d probably have the worst stat line and she wouldn’t be in the game,” Ms Turner said with a laugh.

Then she became serious again: “We have to take her home. She deserves to be back home. She needs to find her family and friends.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug charges in Russian court
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