WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges in a Moscow court on Thursday, July, after being detained in Russia since February after vaping canisters containing hashish oil, which is illegal in Russia, were discovered in her luggage.
Through an interpreter, the Phoenix Mercury star said it was not her “intention” to break Russia’s law. Griner, 31, told the court she was packing in a rush and didn’t mean to leave the canisters in her luggage, according to ABC News.
The trial, which began on July 1, was adjourned until July 14. Such delays are common in Russian trials, Fox 2 reported. If convicted, Griner could face up to 10 years in prison. Her detention has also been extended through Dec. 20 as the trial could last for months.
There are reports that Griner could take part in a prisoner swap, particularly for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death.” Bout is serving a 25-year sentence in a U.S. prison after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
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The reports haven’t been confirmed by the White House, which has classified Griner as “wrongfully detained” by the Russian government.
The White House did, however, say it is doing everything it can to bring Griner home. “We’re going to do everything that we can to bring home Brittney Griner safely and to also make sure that we bring Paul Whelan back home as well,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday.
The White House also released a written statement saying Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, to speak with her.
“The President called Cherelle to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world,’ the statement read, noting Griner was “detained in Russia under intolerable circumstances.”
The ”wrongfully detained” status is one the Russian government has criticized. “This is a serious offense, confirmed by indisputable evidence … Attempts to present the case as if the American was detained illegally do not hold up,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexei Zaitsev said Wednesday.
Griner’s guilty plea comes days after the award-winning basketball player penned an open letter to U.S. President Joe Biden. In the letter Griner said, “… as I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever.”
She also urged Biden to take action, writing “please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees.”
Griner was arrested by Russian customs authorities at the Sheremetyevo International Airport after flying into the country to play in its Premier League during the WNBA offseason. It is something she’d done for 7 years.
Calls for Biden to do more to secure Griner’s release have escalated at home.
“We can’t sit by and watch this person just sit there and in a 99 percent rate of convictions face 10 years in jail and as one of the coaches said is it because she’s Black and gay and a woman,” Rev. Al Sharpton said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program. “If this was LeBron James would we be allowing him to sit there four-and-a-half months and swap other people and not make him part of whatever arrangement with Russia?”
Sharpton also said it was his “intention to be in Russia next week. . And I hope the White House will help to make it possible for me to do a clergy visit to let her know of the support and to let her know that her family and everyone is concerned about her and pray with her,” Sharpton said on “Morning Joe,” adding that he’s spoken to Griner’s wife and father.”
Biden also received a letter signed by nearly 1,200 high-profile Black women urging him to “make a deal to get Brittney back home swiftly and safely and to meet with Brittney’s wife Cherelle immediately.”
Griner’s wife Cherelle also said she needs less talk and more action. “You say she’s top priority, but I want to see it. And I feel like to see it would be me seeing BG on U.S. soil,” Cherelle said in an interview with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts.