From star athlete to political pawn: Basketball's Brittney Griner goes on trial in Russia

Two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA player Brittney Griner (right) is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki City Court, outside Moscow, on July 1, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MOSCOW (NYTIMES) - Brittney Griner arrived in Russia in February to play basketball, one of the sport's biggest stars. She arrived in a courtroom outside Moscow on Friday (July 1) as something else entirely - a potential bargaining chip in Russia's tense standoff with the West over the war in Ukraine, described by supporters as a hostage of the Kremlin.

After more than four months languishing in a Russian prison, and speaking no Russian, Griner, 31, went on trial, accused of carrying into the country vape cartridges with traces - 0.7 grams, the prosecutor said - of cannabis oil. In a legal system that rarely finds defendants anything but guilty, she faces up to 10 years in a penal colony if convicted.

Griner's arrest on Feb 17 - a week before the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine - pulled her into the maw of geopolitics as President Vladimir Putin faced a determined Western effort to help Ukraine fight back. She has been touted in Russian state media as an asset who could be traded for a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in a the United States.

Although Russia's drug laws can carry harsh penalties, a foreigner caught with a small amount would usually face no more than a month in jail, a fine and deportation. But Putin's government has a long history of using detention for international leverage, sometimes to obtain the release of a Russian held abroad.

With little information to go on, Griner's supporters worry about her physical and emotional health and how she is being treated - an openly gay, Black American in a culturally conservative country that has adopted anti-gay laws, has few Black people and sees the United States as its nemesis. They cite her linguistic isolation and the near-certainty that she is being held in conditions not designed to accommodate her 6-foot-9 (205cm) frame.

"She's telling me she's OK," her wife, Cherelle, who has been able to communicate with her only through letters, said in a recent radio interview with the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Cherelle Griner said Brittney Griner had vowed, "I won't let them break me." But Brittney Griner is struggling, her wife said. "She's a human, she's there terrified, she's there alone," Cherelle Griner said. "It's not just that she can't speak to her loved ones. She can't speak to anyone because she doesn't speak the language. It's inhumane on all types of levels."

In a court in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Friday, Griner cut an incongruous figure, as always towering above everyone else as she was led in, her long, tattooed arms cuffed together and cuffed to the arm of a guard. For the first day of her trial, she wore a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and athletic shoes without laces.

She sat in the defendant's cage with a bottle of water and a bag of cookies, and told a reporter that detention was hard because of the language barrier and a lack of exercise, Reuters reported.

The session, conducted in Russian with a few journalists and three US Embassy officials present, was quickly adjourned after some expected witnesses failed to show up. The trial is set to resume on Thursday.

A prosecutor told the court that Griner was "aware enough" that transporting narcotics into Russia was forbidden, according to the state-owned Russian news agency Tass. Griner said that she understood the charges but would express her response to them later, the agency said.

Cherelle Griner and others have questioned whether the Biden administration is doing enough to secure Brittney Griner's release, a view the State Department seemed determined on Friday to dispel. Elizabeth Rood, the charge d'affaires at the US Embassy in Moscow, attended the trial and talked with reporters afterward.

"I did have the opportunity to speak with Ms. Griner in the courtroom," Rood said. "She is doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances and asked me to convey that she is in good spirits and is keeping up the faith."

"The Russian Federation has wrongfully detained Ms Griner," she said, adding, "the US government at the very highest levels is working very hard to bring Ms Griner as well as all wrongfully detained US citizens safely home."

Brittney Griner has been described by supporters as a hostage of the Kremlin, a potential bargaining chip in Russia’s tense standoff with the West over the war in Ukraine. PHOTO: USA TODAY SPORTS

Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted, "We - and I personally - have no higher priority than bringing her and other wrongfully detained Americans" back home.

In a news conference on Friday, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin's spokesman, denied that the case was politically motivated, or that the government was even involved.

"Only the court can pass a verdict," he said.

But reports in Russian state media indicate that Moscow sees Griner as a valuable asset in its confrontation with the US, which is leading Western efforts to help Ukraine resist the Russian invasion.

Tass reported in May that officials were in talks to exchange Griner for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year sentence in a US federal prison for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.

In April, the Biden administration secured the release of Trevor Reed, a former US Marine held for two years in Russia on what his family said were bogus charges of assault, in a swap for a Russian pilot sentenced to a lengthy prison term in the US on cocaine trafficking charges.

US officials have not confirmed any talks about exchanging Griner. The Kremlin has pressed for years for the release of Bout, but US officials are reluctant to take any steps that could be seen as risking the safety of Americans.

Photos and videos have offered brief public glimpses of Griner arriving in court and leaving. Fans scrutinise the images, which some have described as heartbreaking, for clues to her well-being in the expressions behind her round glasses.

Legal experts say Griner's trial is all but certain to end in a conviction despite the clamour in the US for her release. Her lawyer, Alexander Boikov, said this week that he expected the trial to last up to two months.

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She has been held in Correctional Colony No. 1, or IK-1, in the village of Novoye Grishino, an 80km drive from central Moscow - a former orphanage that was converted a decade ago to hold women serving prison sentences or awaiting trial. Video footage of the prison available online shows tall, grey walls, old prison bars and a rusty monument to Lenin in the courtyard.

Russian authorities have not disclosed Griner's whereabouts, but The New York Times was able to identify the prison from a photograph published online by a visitor, and the location was confirmed by a person familiar with the case.

For Griner, every day there looks pretty much the same, said Yekaterina Kalugina, a journalist and member of a public prison monitoring group who has visited Griner in the prison. (She said that Griner's prison mattress was too small for someone her size.)

The inmates wake up, have breakfast in their cell - usually some basic food - and then go for a walk in the prison's courtyard, which is covered by a net. The rest of the day is filled with reading books - Griner has been reading Dostoyevsky in translation, for instance - and watching television, although all of the channels are in Russian, Kalugina said.

The cell has a separate private washroom, she said, something of a novelty for Russian prisons. Prisoners are allowed to shower only twice a week.

Thousands of Russian women have passed through the prison, along with at least one other well-known foreigner, Naama Issachar, an Israeli American arrested in April 2019 when the Russian police said they had found 9.5 grams - one-third of an ounce - of marijuana in her luggage as she was connecting at a Moscow airport.

Issachar was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on drug possession and smuggling charges, and Israeli officials and her family said the Kremlin had tied her fate to that of a Russian being held in Israel. No exchange was made - Israel extradited the Russian detainee to the US to face computer crime charges - but Putin, who was cultivating ties to Israel, pardoned Issachar 10 months after she was arrested.

In a telephone interview from Israel, her mother, Yaffa Issachar, said that her daughter had cried when she heard about Griner's case, telling her: "I know what she's going through now."

Yaffa Issachar said her daughter had been treated relatively well by her cellmates, but that she feared that Griner, as a gay woman, could be treated worse because of Russia's conservative attitudes and discriminatory laws on homosexuality.

Yaffa Ishaffar suggested that Griner's family find a priest who could visit her. "There is somebody watching them," she said, "but at least it's a human she can talk to."

Griner, who plays centre for the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA, is a seven-time league All-Star, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first openly gay athlete signed to an endorsement contract by Nike.

But female basketball players are paid a fraction of what their male counterparts make in the US, so Griner, like many others, has also played in overseas leagues where the contracts are far more lucrative. She played for two seasons in China, and since 2014, she has played in Russia, for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains.

On Feb 17, she landed at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, where her bags were searched. She never made it to the Urals.

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