The US women’s basketball star could be sentenced to up to 10 years in a Russian prison

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has warned the US government not to try and exert pressure on Moscow regarding a potential prisoner exchange, as the drugs trial of American basketball star Brittney Griner continued on Thursday. 

Griner has been in Russian custody since February 17 after being found with banned hashish oil vape cartridges in her luggage when arriving at Sheremetyevo Airport on the outskirts of Moscow. 

The two-time Olympic gold medalist was arriving in Russia to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the WNBA offseason, and while President Joe Biden’s administration has classed her as “wrongfully detained” it has been unable to secure her release.

Speaking ahead of Griner’s third trial hearing at Khimki City Court outside Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that political pressure to try to grant Griner’s freedom was “futile.”

“We urge the US authorities not to exploit this sensitive matter affecting the fates of certain individuals, and we advise them to abandon futile attempts to pressure us,” Zakharova said according to Interfax, when answering a question as to whether prisoner exchange talks were underway.

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The remarks come amid unconfirmed reports that there could be a possible swap between Griner and Viktor Bout, a Russian businessman who is currently serving 25 years behind bars on US soil for alleged arms dealing. 

Zakharova called on the US government to “work through established channels” and added that the process “simply won’t work any other way.”

“When real work is underway, it is not accompanied by this hype in the media, this is just such a classic information campaign. We regret that the United States is going this way, instead of a non-public professional dialogue,” Zakharova lamented.

Furthermore, Zakharova rejected claims that Griner and fellow detained American Paul Whelan, a former Marine and IT consultant convicted of spying who has been in Russian detention since late 2018, are “victims of arbitrary rule.”

“Paul Whelan was convicted of espionage and was caught red-handed, and Griner’s trial is ongoing, until the end of which it is generally premature to discuss any options for her return home,” Zakharova said.

Zakharova’s fresh warning comes a week after Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov criticized the US for creating “hype” around Americans convicted in Russia, noting that sending letters to Biden, as Griner has, will not help their predicament.

Instead, “a serious perception by the American side of the signals that they received from Russia, from Moscow, through specialized channels” is required and the use of them should only be considered after Griner’s case has ended.

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Griner pleaded guilty to her crime last week but protested that she did not mean to break Russian laws, claiming that a rush to pack had resulted in her taking the cartridges in her luggage by accident. 

Griner was not expected to testify at her hearing on Thursday, and her legal team instead reportedly planned to call witnesses to speak up in her defense. 

One of these was UMMC Ekaterinburg director Maxim Ryabkov, who described her as an “outstanding player” and responsible person after Griner was led into court at around 15:20 local time looking calm and even smiling at one point.

Wearing an olive-colored shirt and donning glasses, Griner was joined by representatives from the US Embassy and her lawyers, and then sat in a grey box with metal bars to listen to the proceedings aided by a translator. 

Ryabkov is said to have asked Griner how she was doing during a break, before it was reported that questioning of the suspect was postponed until 10:00 on Friday local time. 

Griner’s attorney Maria Blagovolina has said she is unsure when Griner will be sentenced but there will be a request to the judge to hand down a lenient sentence based on her guilty plea.

Furthermore, it is hoped by Griner’s team that the amount of cannabis found in her luggage, said to be 0.702 grams, plus her “positive contributions to global and Russian sport” will also weigh in her favor. 

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In her letter to Biden, Griner feared that she would be kept in Russian custody “forever” and requested his intervention.

On Thursday, the Kremlin refused to comment on a possible prisoner exchange as it is not common practice to do so regarding such matters.

“We never discuss issues of exchanges,” remarked President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.

Previously, Peskov refuted claims that Griner’s detention is politically motivated and pointed to her breaking the law as the reason for her treatment, which should not be special simply because she is a foreign national.

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