WNBA star Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia since February on drug charges, is set to appear in court Monday for a preliminary hearing ahead of her trial.
Griner was taken into custody less than a week before Russia launched its invasion into Ukraine after vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage at an airport near Moscow. The Olympic gold medalist could face up to 10 years in prison.
Fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted. Russia’s system is different from the U.S. in that acquittals can be overturned.
The basketball player’s trial date has not yet been announced, but is expected soon. Griner was recently ordered to remain in pretrial detention until July 2. The hearing is to address procedural issues.
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Like many other WNBA players, Griner has played overseas during the league’s offseason to make more money. She has played ball in Russia for the past seven years.
The U.S. State Department reclassified Griner as wrongfully detained in May after officials had previously waited for the case to play out through the Russian legal system, and shifted oversight of her case to the department’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
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Griner’s supporters have urged the U.S. to conduct a prisoner swap to grant her release.
Russian news media has repeatedly suggested that she could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, otherwise known as “The Merchant of Death.” Bout is serving a 25-year sentence on conviction of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
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Russia has pushed for Bout’s release for years, but the difference between Griner’s case and Bout’s global dealings in deadly weapons could make the swap unattractive to the U.S.
The idea of a joint swap of Bout for Griner and Paul Whelan, a former Marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction the United States has repeatedly slammed as a set-up, has also been floated around by some.
But U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken would not disclose U.S. plans to bring Griner home when asked Sunday if the joint swap was being considered.
“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 in a TV interview, adding that he “can’t comment in any detail on what we’re doing, except to say this is an absolute priority.”
Griner reportedly would have to be convicted and sentenced, and then must apply for a presidential pardon, Maria Yarmush, a lawyer specializing in international civil affairs, told Russian state TV channel RT.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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