U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug charges in Russian court
WNBA star was arrested in February, faces up to 10 years in jail
Jailed American basketball star Brittney Griner on Thursday pleaded guilty to drug possession during her trial in Moscow but said she had no intention of committing a crime.
Representatives for Griner confirmed to The Associated Press that the WNBA star pleaded guilty to drug possession charges.
Russian news reports quoted Griner as saying through an interpreter at the court hearing that she had acted unintentionally because she was packing in haste.
Griner, 31, was detained in February at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport after vape canisters with cannabis oil allegedly were found in her luggage. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale transportation of drugs.
U.S. committed to bringing athlete home
The trial of the athlete, a centre star with the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medallist, began last week amid a growing chorus of calls for Washington to do more to secure her freedom nearly five months after her arrest.
Before Thursday's hearing, Russian police escorted Griner, handcuffed and clad in a bright red T-shirt and sports trousers, into the courtroom past a crowd of journalists.
Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told reporters after the hearing that she spoke to Griner in the courtroom and shared a letter from U.S. President Joe Biden that she read.
"She's eating well, she's able to read books and under the circumstances she's doing well," Rood said of Griner.
"I would like again to emphasize the commitment of the U.S. government at the very highest level to bring home safely Ms. Griner and all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained as well as the commitment of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to care for and protect the interests of all U.S. citizens detained or imprisoned in Russia," Rood said.
Russia bristles at 'wrongfully detained' description
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov bristled at the U.S. description of Griner as "wrongfully detained" and warned that "attempts by the American side to make noise in public … don't help the practical settlement of issues."
The White House said Biden called Griner's wife on Wednesday to assure her that he's doing all he can to obtain the athlete's release, as soon as possible.
They spoke after Biden read a letter from Griner in which she said she feared she'd never return home.
Washington hasn't made public its strategy in the case and the United States may have little leverage with Moscow because of strong animosity due to Russia's military actions in Ukraine.
The U.S. State Department has designated Griner as wrongfully detained, moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government's chief hostage negotiator.
Asked about the possibility of Griner being swapped for a Russian jailed in the U.S., Ryabkov, the senior Russian diplomat, noted that until her trial is over "there are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps."
He warned that U.S. criticism, including a description of Griner as wrongfully detained and dismissive comments about the Russian judicial system, "makes it difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges."
"The persistence with which the U.S. administration … describes those who were handed prison sentences for serious criminal articles and those who are awaiting the end of investigation and court verdicts as 'wrongfully detained' reflects Washington's refusal to have a sober view of the outside world," Ryabkov snapped.
Proceedings could last months
Griner's trial was adjourned after its start last week because two scheduled witnesses did not appear. Such delays are routine in Russian courts and her detention has been authorized through Dec. 20, suggesting the proceedings could last months.
Although Griner's supporters initially kept a low profile, calls for the United States to take action spiked after the trial's first day.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, one of America's most prominent Black activists, this week called for Biden to arrange a prayer meeting with Griner.
"Four months is too long for this to have gone on, and I hope the president acts on her pleas to come home," he said.
An organization called Win With Black Women sent Biden a letter saying U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had called Cherelle Griner, Brittney's wife. It said Blinken had assured her and stated publicly that Griner's safe return was a matter of personal priority.
"However, we are concerned that the rhetoric does not appear to align with the actions taken to date," the group's letter said. "We urge you to make a deal to get Brittney back home swiftly."
Speculation of prisoner exchange
Russian news media have repeatedly speculated that Griner could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed "the Merchant of Death," who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. on conviction of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
Russia has agitated for Bout's release for years. But the wide discrepancy between Griner's alleged offence and Bout's global dealings in deadly weapons could make such a swap unpalatable to Washington.
Others have suggested that she could be traded along with Paul Whelan, a former Marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on an espionage conviction that the U.S. has repeatedly described as a setup.
Whelan, a Canadian with U.S., British and Irish citizenship, was arrested in late 2018 and sentenced two years ago. He has insisted that he is innocent.
Conviction rate high in Russia
Whelan's brother, David, said he did not have enough information to know whether Griner's plea would be good or bad news for her and his brother.
"The conviction rate is so high in Russia, and so certain, that I could see the guilty plea as an attempt to just move the process forward," David Whelan said, noting the Russian government won't discuss "any release of Ms. Griner until she is convicted, sentenced and potentially appeals or seeks a pardon."
Griner's plea probably means that Washington and Moscow "will be able to seek a resolution faster than they could have before," he said. "But it doesn't change the underlying calculus that the U.S. needs to find a concession that Russia will accept in order to return either or both Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan."
The WNBA players' union said in a statement that it stood by Griner, noting the 99 per cent 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 U.S. State Department determined that Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained for a reason and we'll leave it at that."
With files from CBC News