Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug charges in Russian court

    U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained in March at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, is escorted before a court hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, Russia July 7, 2022. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

    (CNN) — Two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist Brittney Griner has pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Russian court near Moscow, her lawyers confirmed to CNN on Thursday.

    Griner, whom the US State Department has classified as wrongfully detained, faces up to 10 years in prison under the charge. Supporters of the Phoenix Mercury player have called for her release over fears she is being used as a political pawn amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

    Griner’s lawyers expect the court to take into account the 31-year-old athlete’s guilty plea and hope for leniency, Alexander Boykov and Maria Blagovolina told journalists Thursday.

    “Taking into account all the circumstances of the case, taking into account the personality of our client, we believe that the guilty plea should be taken into account,” Blagovolina said, adding Griner is a “role model for many people.”

    Samples taken from Griner did not show any traces of drugs, Boykov added. “She was clean, and she was tested,” the lawyer said.

    Griner left the courtroom Thursday without giving any comment to reporters. Her next hearing is set for July 14.

    Griner was arrested in February at a Moscow airport after Russian officials say they found cannabis oil in her luggage. The basketball star, who plays in Russia during the WNBA’s offseason, has been held since then on drug smuggling charges. Her trial began last week.

    Griner told the court Thursday she had not intended to commit a crime, state news agency RIA Novosti reported. Griner had not meant to carry drugs in her luggage, she said through an interpreter, and it was the result of her packing in a hurry, the report said.

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    The decision to plead guilty was made by Griner alone, a source close to her said. But in recent weeks, Griner, her family, lawyers and experts had discussed this decision extensively. Given the 99% reported conviction rate in Russian criminal cases, Griner was urged to weigh all the factors, including a plea that could ultimately result in a shorter sentence.

    Some have speculated Griner could be released and returned to the US in a prisoner swap, as was Trevor Reed, an American veteran detained in Russia for three years before his release in April.

    There is no indication such a swap is imminent in Griner’s case.

    Still, before any potential prisoner swap, it was expected Griner would have to be convicted and also admit fault, a senior US official told CNN. Reed had to sign a document saying he was guilty — something he had resisted for almost the entirety of his detention — just days before he was let out, the official said.

    “It is part of the show and the document has no legal force or effect in the US. It is effectively meaningless,” said Reed family spokesperson Jonathan Franks.

    Griner’s plea came on the second day of her trial, at which a prosecutor accused her of smuggling less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. Prosecutors argue Griner intended to import the drugs into Russia’s territory and put the prohibited substances into a backpack and a suitcase, according to TASS, another state news agency.

    Griner appreciates letter from Biden, lawyer says

    At Thursday’s hearing, a senior US diplomat gave Griner a letter US President Joe Biden wrote her in reply to her July 4 letter in which she pleaded for Biden’s help. The US Embassy in Moscow shared Biden’s letter with Griner during her trial, Charge d’affaires Elizabeth Rood said Thursday.

    Griner appreciated Biden’s letter “like every citizen of every country would appreciate a personal letter from the President,” Boykov said.

    On Wednesday, the White House announced Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris had spoken by phone with Griner’s wife. Cherelle Griner was “grateful” for the call, she said in a statement Wednesday.

    “While I will remain concerned and outspoken until (Brittney Griner) is back home, I am hopeful in knowing that the President read my wife’s letter and took the time to respond,” she said. “I know BG will be able to find comfort in knowing she has not been forgotten.”

    Meantime, the US government should “continue doing what they are doing and exhaust every measure possible to help bring BG home,” Griner’s Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard told CNN on Thursday following her plea.

    While the focus must be on bringing Griner home safely, Nygaard also called out a perceived double standard in the “lack of coverage and the value of women’s sports.”

    “The question is, would Tom Brady be home?” the coach said. “But Tom Brady wouldn’t be there, right, because he doesn’t have to go to a foreign country to supplement his income from the WNBA.”

    A rally Wednesday for Griner held by the Mercury and the office of US Rep. Greg Stanton of Arizona was “really, really wonderful,” Nygaard said, adding she still was concerned about Griner’s safety in Russia.

    “In her letter (to Biden), she said that she was scared,” the coach said. “This is not just a regular American in another country, but this is a person who is represented our country well. She’s also a gay woman. She’s also a black woman in Russia. And we need to pay attention to that and help to bring her home.”

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