Brittney Griner Russian trial begins

WNBA star Brittney Griner’s trial in a Russian court has begun.

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The center was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, accused of carrying cannabis oil-filled vape canisters, The Associated Press reported.

She faces up to 10 years in prison if she’s convicted and fewer than 1% of defendants in Russia are acquitted. Even if they are, the acquittal can be overturned.

Earlier this week, Griner’s detention was extended until Dec. 20.

Griner was taken to court in handcuffs just before noon in Moscow, Reuters reported. Prosecutors told her that she was being charged with intentionally transporting narcotics. Griner told the court that she understood the charges.

Three people from the U.S. embassy were in the courtroom during Friday’s appearance.

Griner’s legal saga coincides with the lowest point of relations between Russia and the U.S. Her arrest was a week before Russia invaded Ukraine and sanctions set forth by the U.S. against Russia and its oligarchs.

Russia has fired back, denouncing the U.S. for sending weapons to aid Ukraine.

But Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that politics have not played a role in Griner’s legal troubles.

“The facts are that the famous athlete was detained in possession of prohibited medication containing narcotic substances,” Peskov said, according to the AP. “In view of what I’ve said, it can’t be politically motivated.”

However, Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has called the WNBA superstar “a political pawn” and urged the Biden administration to press for the release of Griner.

Russian media have said that Griner’s release could be an exchange for the release of Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, known as “the Merchant of Death.” Bout is serving a 25-year prison sentence after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

The Kremlin has pushed for Bout’s release for years.

Griner may also be part of an exchange with former Marine Paul Whelan for Bout’s release, with Whelan serving 16 years in prison for espionage, the AP reported.

Griner was in Russia after playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA off-season as does several U.S. players who have contracts with the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League, Reuters reported.