WNBA star Brittney Griner is on trial in Russia for drug offenses

Griner, whose arrest came less than a week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, plays for a Russian basketball team during the WNBA’s offseason.

The State Department said in May Griner was “wrongly being held by the Russian government,” an official classification that means the president’s special envoy for hostage affairs, working in coordination with the State Department, was more aggressive in its efforts to secure them publication.

In a statement Friday, Elizabeth Rood, the chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Moscow, said the embassy could speak to Griner in the courtroom.

“She is doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances,” Rood said.

She said the embassy is “deeply concerned about this case and Ms. Griner’s well-being, as do so many Americans and as we do with all US citizens who are trapped abroad.”

“The Russian Federation wrongly arrested Brittney Griner,” Rood said, adding that “the U.S. government at the highest level is working hard to bring Brittney and all wrongfully detained U.S. citizens home safely.”

At a news conference on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the arrest was “politically motivated” and claimed Griner was arrested for carrying “banned drugs.”

“Facts show that the famous athlete was arrested with illicit drugs containing narcotics,” he said. “And indeed there are articles in Russian legislation that provide for the punishment of such crimes. He said the outcome of Griner’s trial would be left to the court.

After a pre-trial hearing Monday, a State Department spokesman said it would “continue to press for their release.”

However, Russian law experts say Griner’s best option for securing her release would be through diplomatic channels rather than the legal system. Recreational and medicinal marijuana is illegal in Russia, and less than 1% of all criminal cases in the country end in acquittals, according to Reuters.

Penal colony time is all but guaranteed if Griner is convicted of large-scale drug trafficking, and she could face between five and 10 years, said William E. Butler, author of Russian Law and Legal. Institutions” and Professor at Penn State Dickinson Law.

Russia’s penal code can allow a court to impose a sentence below the minimum penalty, he said, but lawyers must argue convincingly.

Many of the details surrounding Griner’s trial were unclear. Butler said she would likely face a bench trial, as opposed to a jury trial, and he expects a verdict to be returned the same day the trial ends.

He said this type of trial could not last more than a day, but “since we don’t know anything about her side of the story, there can be no certainty.” Griner would have an opportunity to appeal if found guilty.

Thomas Firestone, a former Justice Department official who worked as a lawyer in Moscow, said he was aware of a recent case similar to Griner’s that took about two and a half months to complete. An acquittal in the Griner case is “very unlikely”.

Firestone believes the trial is being closely monitored by Kremlin officials. Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA championship winner with the Mercury, is no ordinary American prisoner, and former diplomats have suggested that President Vladimir Putin may be viewing her as a potential bargaining chip on a high-profile Russian national imprisoned in the United States.

Experts say among those Russia wants in a prison swap is Viktor Bout, an international arms dealer dubbed the Merchant of Death, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2011 for conspiring to sell guns to rebels in Colombia to sell.

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Monday on Meet the Press NOW that Putin is holding Griner back as part of a “principle strategy of intimidation.”

But a Putin spokesman disputed the State Department’s position that Griner was a Russian hostage, telling NBC News she was no different from “hundreds and hundreds of Russian citizens convicted of carrying hashish.”

Meanwhile, Griner’s supporters, including her wife and other WNBA players, continue to flock to her at basketball games and on social media using the hashtag #WeAreBG.

Her wife, Cherelle Griner, said in an interview with Rev. Al Sharpton on Wednesday that she has received letters from her spouse saying she is “hanging on” but believes she is still “struggling. She is afraid. She’s there alone.”

Cherelle Griner said on Sharpton’s SiriusXM radio show Keepin’ It Real that she hasn’t spoken to her wife since February 17. The couple were scheduled to speak on the day of their fourth anniversary this month, but a logistical error with the American embassy reportedly couldn’t connect their call.

Cherelle Griner added that her wife’s trial is already underway.

“There’s nothing justice about it,” she said.