RIGA, Latvia — American WNBA star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to carrying cannabis oil on the second day of her closely watched trial in Russia, where she faces up to 10 years in prison.
The question now is whether Washington and Moscow will be able to reach a deal on her release, and that of other American detainees in the country, amid a deep diplomatic chill over the Kremlin’s brutal war in Ukraine.
“I’d like to plead guilty, Your Honor,” Griner said Thursday, according to a Reuters reporter in the courtroom. “But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.” She then asked to give her testimony at a later date, saying she needed time to prepare, and the court adjourned.
Earlier, a top Russian official indicated that no steps could be taken on a prisoner swap until the case was complete.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the push in the United States for a prisoner exchange was not helping Griner’s chances of release. Ryabkov spoke to journalists before the court convened in the Moscow suburb of Khimki.
Griner pleaded guilty on July 7 to carrying cannabis oil and faces up to 10 years in prison. The State Department categorized Griner as “wrongfully detained.”
“The American side’s attempts to foment hype and make noise in the public environment are understandable, but they don’t help to practically resolve issues,” Ryabkov said.
Griner entered the court handcuffed and wearing a red shirt and red slacks, according to video from the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States would not give up working for Griner’s release, as well as that of other Americans detained in Russia, including former Marine Paul Whelan.
“We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” he tweeted.
The deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Elizabeth Rood, was in the courtroom, where she handed Griner a letter from President Biden and spoke briefly with her about how she is holding up in prison.
“She said that she is eating well. She’s able to read books and under the circumstances, she’s doing well,” Rood wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “Most important, I was able to share with Ms. Griner a letter from President Biden, and … Griner was able to read that letter.”
Everything you need to know about Brittney Griner in Russia
Rood added that the U.S. government was committed “at the very highest levels to bring home safely Ms. Griner and all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained.”
In a hearing last week, Russian customs officials said Griner was found with two vape cartridges in her baggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport in February, a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Griner told the court Thursday that she had been in a rush when she packed and that the vape cartridges ended up in her baggage by accident, Russian media reported. Airport employees who witnessed the search of her bags testified for the prosecution, Griner’s lawyers said.
Griner was playing basketball in Russia, as many women’s pro players do overseas, to supplement her income while maintaining her skills during the offseason.
Ryabkov suggested the Russian side was willing to negotiate once Griner’s case was complete, saying that “we have a long-established form for discussing these matters.”
“Clearly the necessary judicial procedures have not been completed. Until then, there is no nominal, formal, procedural basis for any further steps at all,” Ryabkov said.
The trial will resume July 14, though it is unclear when Griner will be sentenced. One of her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, told The Post, “we are expecting a fairly quick completion of the trial: another three to five sessions, no more.”
“We hope that the confession of guilt will influence the court to hand down a more lenient sentence, and we will ask for that,” she added.
Prominent Russian human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who had to flee the country in September, said Russian courts were normally more lenient in cases where people pleaded guilty.
But this case was highly political, he said, which could mean a tougher sentence. “I think that they will be trying to raise the price as much as possible. I believe that they will give her a maximum term so that the other side will react,” Pavlov predicted. “Because if they give her a short or mild term, then it will be hard to make the other side interested in negotiations.”
Griner was arrested amid severe tensions between Washington and Moscow, which have only intensified during Russia’s war in Ukraine. As diplomatic efforts to avert the war broke down in January, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued an alert warning Americans against any travel to Russia.
A White House statement Wednesday said Griner was being held under “intolerable circumstances.” The statement came after Biden and Vice President Harris called Griner’s wife, Cherelle, assuring her they were doing all they could to secure Griner’s release and that of Whelan.
A security consultant, Whelan has been in jail since December 2018. He traveled to Moscow for a friend’s wedding and was arrested in his hotel room and convicted of spying in a closed trial, receiving a 16-year sentence.
Whelan’s sister Elizabeth Whelan said the family was “astonished” that Biden called Griner’s wife but did not call them, according to the Detroit News.
In a prisoner exchange with the United States in April, Moscow swapped Marine veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year prison sentence in Connecticut for drug trafficking. Reed had received a nine-year sentence in Russia after being convicted of assault that endangered the lives of police officers.
Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia
Griner recently wrote to Biden begging him not to forget her and other detainees, saying, “I’m terrified I might be here forever.”
Her supporters in the United States say she is a hostage and a political pawn.
Hours after the Phoenix Mercury star’s guilty plea, the WNBA players association released a statement of support. “The WNBPA stands with Brittney Griner,” the statement read. “With a 99% conviction rate, Russia’s process is its own. You can’t navigate it or even understand it like our own legal system. What we do know is that the US State Department determined that Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained for a reason and will continue negotiating for her release regardless of the legal process.”
Griner also received support from U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who was at the White House on Thursday afternoon to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. An image posted to Rapinoe’s Instagram account showed her wearing a white-cream blazer with the initials “BG” and flowers embroidered on the right lapel.
Russian media has speculated that Washington could exchange Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States for conspiring to sell surface-to-air missiles to a foreign terrorist group and kill U.S. citizens. Bout, the inspiration for the Nicolas Cage film “Lord of War,” smuggled arms to warlords in Africa and the Middle East for years until his 2008 arrest in Thailand and 2010 extradition to the United States.
Russia calls Bout’s arrest and conviction “unlawful and political” and has been demanding his release for more than a decade.
Asked about the possibility of a prisoner swap, Griner’s attorney was circumspect. “We’re lawyers, not diplomats,” Blagovolina said, but she added that Biden’s letter was “an indication that she will be getting the government’s support and that some steps will follow.”
According to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for prisoner and hostage releases, there are 64 Americans held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad.
In recent years, there has been a worrying rise in “hostage diplomacy,” in which governments seize rival nations’ citizens on flimsy charges to gain leverage. In addition to the cases in Russia, there have been similar incidents in China, North Korea and Iran.
In early May, the State Department determined that Griner was being wrongfully held and shifted supervision of her case to Roger Carstens, presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has dismissed claims that the charges were political, saying that drug offenses were treated seriously in Russia and many other countries.