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Brittney Griner appears in court for ongoing trial as US attempts to negotiate prisoner swap

The Russian trial of WNBA star Brittney Griner continued on August 2 as US officials attempt to negotiate a prisoner swap for her release. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool/Reuters/FILE

(CNN) — The Russian trial of WNBA star Brittney Griner continued Tuesday as US officials attempt to negotiate a prisoner swap for her release.

The scheduled appearance in a courtroom near Moscow marked Griner’s seventh hearing as Russian prosecutors accuse her of trying to smuggle less than one gram of cannabis oil in her luggage while traveling through a Moscow airport in February.

The hearing at the Khimki court lasted for just over two hours and included two expert testimonies. As in previous appearances, Griner was seated inside the defendant cage in the courtroom. Her next hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

During the trial, Griner has testified that she has a doctor’s prescription for medical cannabis and had no intention of bringing the drug into Russia. Following her detention in February, she was tested for drugs and was clean, her lawyers previously said.

Griner pleaded guilty last month, a decision her lawyers hope the court will take into account and potentially result in a less severe sentence. She faces up to 10 years in prison.

Griner, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury and is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, plays in Russia during the WNBA offseason. US officials have designated her arrest as a wrongful detention and are facing immense pressure from Griner’s family, lawmakers and the professional basketball community to bring Griner home. Griner herself wrote a letter to President Joe Biden pleading with him to do everything in his power to facilitate her release.

Elizabeth Rood, the charge d’affaires of the US embassy in Moscow, attended Tuesday’s hearing. The US, she said following the appearance, would “continue to support Miss Griner through every step of this process and as long as it takes to bring her home to the United States safely.”

Amid this pressure and after months of internal debate, the Biden administration proposed a prisoner swap with Russia, offering to release a convicted Russian arms trafficker in exchange for Griner and another American detainee, Paul Whelan, people briefed on the matter told CNN.

Russian officials countered the US offer, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions, requesting that in addition to arms dealer Viktor Bout, the US also include a convicted murderer who was formerly a colonel with the Russian spy agency, Vadim Krasikov.

US officials did not accept the request as a legitimate counteroffer, the sources told CNN, in part because the proposal was sent through an informal FSB backchannel. Krasikov’s release would also be complicated because he is currently in German custody.

“It’s a bad faith attempt to avoid a very serious offer and proposal that the United States has put forward and we urge Russia to take that offer seriously,” Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby told CNN, later adding, “We very much want to see Brittany and Paul come home to their families where they belong.”

In the meantime, Griner’s trial carries on, with her legal team expected to continue questioning more witnesses before moving to closing arguments, during which the lawyers will elaborate on why they believe Griner’s detention was handled improperly. The closing arguments will likely place in the coming weeks.

Attorneys make the case for an ‘improper’ detention

Griner’s attorneys have already laid out some arguments claiming the basketball player’s detention was not handled correctly after she was stopped by personnel at the Sheremetyevo International Airport on February 17.

Griner’s detention, search and arrest were “improper,” Alexander Boykov, one of her lawyers, said last week, noting more details would be revealed during closing arguments.

After she was stopped in the airport, Griner testified that she was made to sign documents that she did not fully understand. At first, she said, she was using Google translate on her phone, but was later moved to another room where her phone was taken and she was made to sign more documents.

No lawyer was present, she testified, and she said her rights were not explained to her. Those rights would include access to an attorney once she was detained and the right to know what she was suspected of. Under Russian law, she should have been informed of her rights within three hours of her arrest.

In her testimony, Griner “explained to the court that she knows and respects Russian laws and never intended to break them,” one of Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, said after last week’s hearing.

The detained player testified that she was aware of Russian laws and had no intention of bringing the cannabis oil into the country, saying that she was in a rush and “stress packing.”

Griner confirmed she has a doctor’s prescription for medical cannabis, Blagovolina said, which she uses to treat knee pain and joint inflammation.

“We continue to insist that, by indiscretion, in a hurry, she packed her suitcase and did not pay attention to the fact that substances allowed for use in the United States ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation,” Boykov has said.

Griner’s family, supporters and WNBA teammates continue expressing messages of solidarity and hope as they wait for the conclusion of the trial and look forward to the potential of her release.

Before trial proceedings last week, the WNBA players union tweeted, “Dear BG … It’s early in Moscow. Our day is ending and yours is just beginning. Not a day, not an hour goes by that you’re not on our minds & in our hearts.”

This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.


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