WNBA’s Griner pleads guilty in Russia drug trial – Daily Local

By JIM HEINTZ

MOSCOW (AP) — American basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty Thursday to drug possession charges on the second day of her trial in a Russian court in a case that could see her sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. jail.

Center Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist’s abrupt guilty plea came amid a growing chorus of calls for Washington to do more to secure his freedom nearly five months after his February arrest in amid growing tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine. .

A senior Russian diplomat said earlier that no action could be taken by Moscow on Griner’s case until the trial is over, and his guilty plea could be an effort by him and his advisers to speed up the legal proceedings. .

Griner, 31, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on her way back to play basketball in Russia, and police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

Speaking through an interpreter, Griner told the court she had no intention of committing a crime and acted involuntarily because she packed her bags for Moscow in a hurry. The trial was then adjourned until July 14.

Griner stressed “that she did this act negligently, unintentionally,” her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, said in court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki after the guilty plea.

“We are of course hoping for leniency from the court,” she said. “Given all the circumstances of the case, given the personality of our client, we believe that the admission of guilt must certainly be taken into account.”

Blagovolina added that other defense witnesses would be questioned at a later session.

Griner was escorted to the courtroom in handcuffs and dressed in a bright red t-shirt bearing the name “Crenshaw” and sweatpants. She was also holding a photo of his wife, Cherelle.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington would continue to work for the release of Griner, along with other Americans held by Moscow, including former Marine Paul Whelan.

“We will not back down until Brittney, Paul Whelan and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” he tweeted, noting that US Embassy officials again witnessed the track Thursday.

Elizabeth Rood, the embassy’s deputy chief of mission, said after the hearing that she spoke to Griner in the courtroom and shared with her a letter from President Joe Biden that she had read.

“She’s eating well, she’s able to read books and under the circumstances she’s fine,” Rood said.

“I would again like to underscore the commitment of the U.S. government at the highest level to the safe return home of Ms. Griner and all wrongfully detained U.S. citizens, as well as the commitment of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to care for and protect the interests of all American citizens detained or imprisoned in Russia,” Rood said.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov bristled at the US description of Griner as “wrongfully detained” and warned that “attempts by the US side to make noise in public… not help in practical problem solving”.

The White House said Biden called Cherelle Griner on Wednesday to assure her he was doing everything he could to secure her release as soon as possible. They spoke after Biden read a letter from Griner in which she said she feared she would never return home.

Washington has not revealed its strategy in the matter, and the United States may have little leverage over Moscow due to strong animosity over its actions in Ukraine. The State Department‘s designation of Griner as wrongfully detained puts his case under the supervision of its Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, making him the government’s chief hostage negotiator.

Asked about the possibility of Griner being exchanged for a Russian imprisoned in the United States, Ryabkov, the senior Russian diplomat, noted that until the end of her trial “there is no formal or procedural reason to speak new measures”.

He warned that American criticism, including a description of Griner as wrongfully detained and dismissive comments about the Russian justice system, “make it difficult to engage in a detailed discussion of any possible exchange.”

“The persistence with which the U.S. administration…describes those who have been sentenced to prison for serious criminal articles and those awaiting completion of investigation and court verdicts as ‘wrongfully detained’ reflects denial of Washington to have a sober view of the outside world,” Ryabkov quipped.

Griner’s trial was adjourned after it began last week because two scheduled witnesses failed to appear. Such delays are common in Russian courts and his detention has been granted until December 20, suggesting the proceedings could take months.

Although Griner supporters initially kept a low profile, calls for Washington to act grew after the first day of the trial on July 1.

An organization called Win With Black Women wrote to Biden saying Blinken had called Cherelle Griner, “assuring her and publicly stating that Brittney’s safe return was a personal priority; however, we are concerned that the rhetoric does not appear to match the actions taken to date. We urge you to strike a deal to bring Brittney home quickly.

Russian media have repeatedly speculated that Griner could be traded for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed ‘the dealer of death’, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States after being convicted guilty of conspiracy to kill US citizens and aiding a terrorist organization.

Russia has been agitating for years for Bout’s release. But the wide gap between Griner’s alleged offense and Bout’s global deals in lethal weapons could make such a trade unpleasant for Washington.

Others have suggested she could be swapped with Paul Whelan, the former director of navy and security who spent 16 years in Russia on an espionage conviction the United States has described as a setup.

Whelan’s brother, David, said he didn’t have enough information to know whether Griner’s call would be good or bad news for her and her brother.

“The conviction rate is so high in Russia, and so certain, that I might see the guilty plea as an attempt to just move the process along,” David Whelan said, noting that the Russian government will not discuss “any release of Ms. Griner until she is found guilty, sentenced and potentially on appeal or asks for forgiveness.

His plea likely means that Washington and Moscow “will be able to find a solution more quickly than before. But that doesn’t change the underlying calculus that the United States must find a concession that Russia will accept in order to fire Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, or both. he added.

The WNBA players’ union said in a statement that it supports Griner, noting the 99% conviction rate in Russian courts.

“You can’t navigate it or even understand it like our own legal system,” said WNBAPA executive director Terri Jackson. “What we do know is that the US State Department has determined that Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained for a reason and we will leave it at that.”

Russia has shown no signs of backing down.

“This is a serious offence, confirmed by irrefutable evidence. … Attempts to present the case as if the American was being illegally detained do not hold up,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexei Zaitsev said on Wednesday.

“The law has been broken and arguments about the innocent nature of Griner’s addiction, which, by the way, is punishable in some US states, are inappropriate in this case,” he said.

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AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg in New York and Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed.

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