Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drugs charges and faces up to 10 years in Russian prison

‘I’d like to plead guilty, your honour. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,’ said the WNBA star in court

Related video: Fans gather for Brittney Griner rally in downtown Phoenix

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WNBA star Brittney Griner has pleaded guilty in a Russian court to drugs charges that could see her sentenced to 10 years in prison.

The basketball player returned to court today to face her trial, as a senior Russian diplomat said that US criticism of Russia’s handling of the case wouldn’t help Ms Griner’s possibility of being released.

“I’d like to plead guilty, your honour. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Ms Griner said in English. Her words were translated into Russian for the court, Reuters reported.

“I’d like to give my testimony later. I need time to prepare,” she added. The next hearing is set to take place on 14 July.

The trial started last week as calls were increasing for the Biden administration to go further in its efforts to secure her release after almost five months of detention.

Russian police escorted Ms Griner ahead of the hearing into the courtroom past a group of reporters. Ms Griner was seen handcuffed to an officer and being led into the court, holding a photo of her wife.

She was arrested in February at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow after vape canisters containing cannabis oil were allegedly discovered in her luggage. Today she said she had “packed in a hurry”, according to NPR.

Griner is escorted into court carrying a picture of her wife

Ms Griner, 31, is a centre for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA and had been playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League to increase her income during the WNBA’s off-season, much like other US players have also done.

Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov warned yesterday that “attempts by the American side to make noise in public... don’t help the practical settlement of issues”.

The White House said president Joe Biden called Ms Griner’s wife on Wednesday to assure her that he was doing all he could to obtain her release, as soon as possible. They spoke after Biden read a letter from Ms 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 while Russia is taking military action in Ukraine. The 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 US, Mr 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 US criticism, including a description of Ms 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 US 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,” Mr Ryabkov said.

The trial of the Phoenix Mercury star and two-time Olympic gold medallist 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 authorised until 20 December, indicating that the proceedings could last for months.

Although Ms Griner’s supporters initially kept a low profile, calls for the United States to take action spiked after the trial’s first day.

The Reverend Al Sharpton, one of America’s most prominent Black activists, this week called for Mr Biden to arrange a prayer meeting with Ms Griner, saying: “Four months is too long for this to have gone on, and I hope the president acts on her pleas to come home.”

An organisation called Win With Black Women sent Biden a letter saying secretary of state Antony Blinken “has called Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, assuring her and stating publicly that Brittney’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. We urge you to make a deal to get Brittney back home swiftly.”

Russian news media have repeatedly speculated that Ms Griner could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the merchant of death”, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the US for conspiracy to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.

Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the wide discrepancy between Ms 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 US Marine and security director who is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on an espionage conviction that the US has repeatedly described as a set-up.

Russia has shown no signs of backing off.

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

“The law has been violated, 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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