Brittney Griner to Appear in Court in Russia

(MOSCOW) — More than four months after she was arrested at a Moscow airport for cannabis possession, American basketball star Brittney Griner is to appear in court Monday for a preliminary hearing ahead of her trial.

The Phoenix Mercury star, considered in some polls to be the United States’ most gifted female athlete, could face 10 years in prison if convicted on charges of large-scale transportation of drugs. Only 1% of Russian criminal defendants are acquitted. However, unlike the U.S.A, appeals may be made.

While the date of Griner’s trial has yet to be announced, they are expected to do so soon. Griner was ordered recently not to leave pretrial detention beyond July 2. Khimki, a Moscow suburb, will hear Griner’s case to resolve procedural problems.

Griner’s detention and trial come at an extraordinarily low point in Moscow-Washington relations. She was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport less than a week before Russia sent troops into Ukraine, which aggravated already-high tensions with sweeping sanctions by the United States and Russia’s denunciation of U.S. weapon supplies to Ukraine.

Amid the tensions, Griner’s supporters had taken a low profile in hopes of a quiet resolution, until May, when the State Department reclassified her as wrongfully detained and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs — effectively the U.S. government’s chief negotiator.

That move has drawn additional attention to Griner’s case, with supporters encouraging a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought home Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.

Russian news media have repeatedly raised speculation that she could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “The Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence on conviction of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the discrepancy between Griner’s case — she allegedly was found in possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil — and Bout’s global dealings in deadly weapons could make such a swap unpalatable to the U.S.

Other people suggested that Whelan could trade her with Paul Whelan. Paul Whelan is a former Marine Security Director serving a 16 year sentence for an espionage case that was repeatedly called “a set-up” by the United States.

Antony Blinken of the United States was asked on Sunday by CNN whether Griner or Whelan were being considered for a combined swap. Blinken brushed aside the question.

“As a general proposition … I have got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,” he said. But “I can’t comment in any detail on what we’re doing, except to say this is an absolute priority.”

A swap would require Griner first to be convicted, sentenced and then applied for a presidential pardon. Maria Yarmush is a lawyer specializing on international civil affairs.

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