Brittney Griner’s trial on Russian drug charges opened in Moscow court

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RIGA, Latvia — A Moscow court on Friday banned media coverage of the trial of US WNBA star Brittney Griner on drug charges that could carry her up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

The court did say that at the end of the session, five journalists may enter the room.

Griner arrived in court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki on charges that she had vape cartridges containing “a significant amount” of hash oil in her luggage at a Moscow airport in February, a week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

She has been in custody since February and will remain there until December pending the outcome of her trial. US chargé d’affaires Elizabeth Rood attended Griner’s hearing.

Griner’s case has been complicated by the serious deterioration of relations between Washington and Moscow, and her supporters say she is a hostage and a political pawn.

Everything you need to know about Brittney Griner in Russia

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any political motives behind the trial. “It cannot be politically motivated,” he told reporters on Friday. “She was in possession of illegal drugs containing narcotics.”

Peskov last week rejected claims she was a hostage and said drug offenses are treated seriously in Russia and many other countries. “We cannot call her a hostage. Why should we call her a hostage?” he said.

“There are some countries that you are not allowed to enter with drugs,” Peskov said. “It is also being prosecuted under Russian law. Russia is not the only country in the world to have strict laws in this sense.”

Griner supporters in the United States have called on President Biden to negotiate a prisoner swap similar to the one seen in April when Russia exchanged former Marine Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year prison sentence in Connecticut for drug trafficking. Reed spent nine years in prison after being convicted of assault that endangered the lives of police officers.

Griner is one of two Americans wrongly detained by Russia, according to the State Department. Former US Marine Paul Whelan has been in prison since December 2018, when he traveled to Moscow for a friend’s wedding and was arrested in his hotel room. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison after being convicted of espionage in a closed trial. He denies the charges and calls the case political.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Sunday that freeing wrongly detained Americans like Whelan and Griner was his top priority.

“I have no higher priority than making sure Americans who are illegally held in one way or another around the world come home, and that includes Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner,” he said in a statement. interview with CNN, declining to comment on whether the US government was looking for a prisoner swap involving Whelan and Griner.

Russian media has speculated that Washington could trade Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving 25 years in the United States for conspiring to sell surface-to-air missiles to a foreign terrorist group and plotting to kill American citizens. Bout, the inspiration for the Nicholas Cage film ‘Lord of War’, is said to have spent years smuggling weapons to warlords in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia — sometimes arming both sides in conflict — until his 2008 arrest in Thailand. and extradition in 2010 to the United States. Russia calls Bout’s arrest and conviction “illegitimate and political” and has been demanding his release since 2008.

Everything you need to know about Brittney Griner in Russia

According to Russian customs officials, Griner was about to fly from Moscow to New York when a sniffer dog at Sheremetyevo International Airport “indicated that there may be drugs in the hand luggage of a United States citizen,” a reference to Griner. Customs officials said they found vapes in her luggage, which were later analyzed and contained hash oil. The customs agency posted a video of the search for the airport that was apparently taken from surveillance cameras.

In early May, the State Department determined that Griner had been wrongly detained and shifted oversight of her case to Roger Carstens, presidential envoy to hostage-taking. Based on the ruling, the department did not provide any further explanation.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said at the time that the Department has considered the circumstances in any case, “whether it is the case of Brittney Griner, whether it is the case of Paul Whelan, whether it is the case of Americans in Iran. In each of those cases, there will be unique factors.”

Price said Griner was “happy to have a network that has supported her from day one,” adding that the department had worked closely with its donors.

About a month before the invasion of Ukraine, the State Department issued a Level 4 security warning to Americans, ordering them not to travel to Russia because of the risk of arbitrary law enforcement and intimidation by Russian officials, as well as tensions over Ukraine. It warned that State Department officials had limited ability to help US citizens in Russia.

“Russian officials have unreasonably delayed US consular assistance to detained US citizens and have arrested US citizens on false charges, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and sentenced them in secret trials and/or without producing evidence,” the warning reads. .