WNBA star Brittney Griner, who has spent more than four months in a Russian prison, will go on trial for cannabis possession charges on Friday. Griner was arrested at an airport near Moscow in February after customs officials reportedly found cannabis vape cartridges in her luggage. Since then, her detention has been extended several times as Russian authorities prepared to prosecute her for the alleged offense.
On Monday, Griner appeared at a court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki for a preliminary hearing. Appearing apprehensive as she was escorted into the courtroom in handcuffs, Griner’s detention was extended for another six months pending the outcome of her prosecution, according to her attorney, Alexander Boikov, who confirmed the Friday start of her trial to CNN. Video shared by an NPR reporter showed Griner entering and leaving the courtroom in the custody of authorities.
“It was good to see her in some of those images, but it’s tough. Every time’s a reminder that their teammate, their friend, is wrongfully imprisoned in another country,” Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said on Monday after news of Griner’s court appearance broke. “It’s tough on our team. It is good to see her. See how she’s doing? I don’t know if she’s doing OK.
“At least we get to see an image of her. Hopefully with this trial happening quickly that some things will change and that President Biden will take the steps to ensure she comes home.”
Boikov told The New York Times that depending on the court’s workload, Griner’s trial on cannabis possession charges could last as long as two months.
Congressman Says Brittney Griner Is ‘Political Prisoner’
Griner’s arrest and detention came to light in the early days of Russia’s war with neighboring Ukraine. With much of the world community united against Russian President Vladimir Putin with economic sanctions and other measures, many see the WNBA star center’s prosecution as a political act designed to gain concessions from the West.
U.S Representative Colin Allred, who represents Griner’s home district in Texas, said that she is “for intents and purposes a political prisoner” and warned her fans to be ready for a “sham” trial that results in a conviction and prison time.
“This will all mean nothing, and I will keep working closely with the Biden Administration to bring her, and all Americans detained abroad, home safely,” Allred said in a statement to The Washington Post.
The congressman added that Griner’s court appearance this week and impending trial “are all theater to give Russia some appearance of having a fair legal system and for her detention to be anything other than a deeply cynical, geo-political power play with a prominent American and to put more pressure on the negotiations for her release.”
On June 14, the Russian state news agency TASS reported that Griner’s detention has been extended until at least July 2, the second time authorities have lengthened her stay in jail as she awaits a hearing in the case. At the time, Aron Solomon, the chief legal analyst for Esquire Digital, told Insider that he believed that the reported deadline “is as fictitious as any other date.”
“Anyone still taking Russia’s word for anything in the Griner case is being foolish,” he said. “This ‘hearing’ will never happen.”
“She will either be clandestinely found guilty and sent to prison camp or she will be in a prisoner swap,” Solomon added.
Griner is a seven-time WNBA All-Star center who has played for the Phoenix Mercury since the 2013 season, including the team’s 2014 league championship crew. She has also twice won the Olympic gold medal with the U.S. women’s basketball team.
Griner has played seven seasons of professional basketball in Russia during the WNBA off-season, a common practice among the league’s players. She earns about $1 million per season to play in Russia, about four times the salary she earns playing for the WNBA. On January 29, Griner played her latest game with her team UMMC Ekaterinburg before the Russian league took a break for the FIBA World Cup qualifying tournaments.
The Russian Customs Service reported on March 5 that an American women’s basketball player had been detained after cannabis vape cartridges were discovered in her luggage at the Sheremetyevo airport. The date of the arrest was not given and the name of the player was not included in the report. Russian authorities also released a video that appeared to show the star center with customs officials at an airport security checkpoint.
The Russian state news agency TASS later reported that the arrested player was Griner. Although the date of Griner’s arrest was not announced, media outlets reported that she has been in custody since February 17. After news of the arrest made headlines, the WNBA and the players’ union issued messages of support for the star athlete.
“Brittney Griner has the WNBA’s full support, and our main priority is her swift and safe return to the United States,” the league said in a statement after Griner’s arrest was announced.