HomeSportsFrom star athlete to political pawn: Griner goes on trial in Russia

From star athlete to political pawn: Griner goes on trial in Russia

Brittney Griner came to Russia in February to play basketball, one of the biggest stars in the sport. She arrived in a courtroom outside Moscow on Friday as something else entirely: a potential bargaining chip in Russia’s tense standoff with the West over the war in Ukraine, described by her supporters as a Kremlin hostage.

After more than four months languishing in a Russian prison and not speaking Russian, Ms. Griner, 31, went on trial, accused of bringing into the country vape cartridges with traces (0.7 grams, the prosecutor said) of cannabis oil. In a legal system that rarely convicts defendants, she faces up to 10 years in a penal colony if she is convicted.

Ms. Griner’s arrest on February 17, a week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, thrust her into the jaws of geopolitics as President Vladimir V. Putin faced a determined Western effort to help Ukraine fight back. . She has been touted in Russian state media as an asset who could be traded for a Russian arms dealer sitting in an American prison.

Although Russia’s drug laws can carry harsh penalties, a foreigner caught with a small amount would typically face no more than a month in jail, a fine and deportation, but the Putin government has a long history of using the drug. detention to exert international influence, sometimes to obtain the release of a Russian detained abroad.

With little information to go on, supporters of Ms. Griner worry about her physical and emotional health and how she is treated: an openly gay black American in a culturally conservative country that has adopted anti-gay laws, has few blacks, and sees America as his nemesis. They cite her linguistic isolation and the near certainty that she is being held in conditions not designed to accommodate her 6-foot-9 height.

“She tells me she’s fine,” his wife, Cherelle, who has been able to communicate with her only through letters, said in a recent radio interview with the Rev. Al Sharpton. Cherelle Griner said that Brittney Griner had promised, “I won’t let them break me.”

But Brittney Griner is struggling, her wife said. “She’s a human, she’s terrified, she’s alone,” Cherelle Griner said. “It’s not just that she can’t talk to her loved ones. She can’t talk to anyone because she doesn’t speak the language. She is inhuman on all kinds of levels.”

In a courtroom in Khimki, outside Moscow, on Friday, Ms Griner made an incongruous figure, as always, towering above everyone else as she was led away, her long tattooed arms shackled and shackled on the arm of a guard. For the first day of her trial, she wore a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and slip-on sneakers.

He sat in the defendant’s cage with a bottle of water and a bag of crackers, telling a reporter the detention was difficult due to the language barrier and lack of exercise, Reuters reported. The session, held in Russian with some journalists and three US embassy officials in attendance, was quickly adjourned after some expected witnesses failed to show up. The trial will resume next Thursday.

A prosecutor told the court that Ms. Griner was “sufficiently aware” that the transport of narcotics to Russia was prohibited, according to the Russian state news agency Tass. Ms. Griner said that she understood the charges, but that she would express her response later, the agency said.

Cherelle Griner and others have questioned whether the Biden administration is doing enough to secure Brittney Griner’s release, a view the State Department seemed determined to dispel on Friday. Elizabeth Rood, chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Moscow, attended the trial and then spoke to reporters.

“I had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Griner in the courtroom,” said Ms. Rood. “She is doing as well as she can be expected under these difficult circumstances and she asked me to convey to you that she is in good spirits and that she is keeping the faith.”

“The Russian Federation has wrongfully detained Ms. Griner,” he said, adding that “the US government at the highest levels is working very hard to bring Ms. Griner home, as well as other all American citizens wrongfully detained.”

Secretary of state Antony J. Blinken tweeted“We, and I personally, have no higher priority than bringing her and other wrongfully detained Americans” back home.

At a news conference on Friday, Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, denied that the case was politically motivated or that the government was even involved. “Only the court can render a verdict,” he said.

But reports in Russian state media indicate that Moscow sees Ms. Griner as a valuable asset in its confrontation with the United States, which is leading Western efforts to help Ukraine resist the Russian invasion. Tass reported in May that officials were in talks to swap Griner for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in US federal prison for conspiring to sell weapons to people they said were planning to kill americans.

In April, the Biden administration secured the release of Trevor R. Reed, a former U.S. Marine held for two years in Russia on what his family said were trumped-up assault charges, in a trade for a Russian pilot sentenced to life. lengthy prison sentence in the United States on cocaine trafficking charges.

US officials have not confirmed any talk of the exchange of Ms. Griner. The Kremlin has pushed for years for Bout’s release, but US officials are reluctant to take any action that could be seen as a security risk to Americans.

Photos and videos have offered brief public glimpses of Ms. Griner arriving at court and leaving. Fans scrutinize the images, which some have described kind of heartbreaking, looking for clues to his well-being in the expressions behind his round glasses.

Legal experts say Ms Griner’s trial was almost certain to end in a conviction despite clamor in the United States for her release. Her lawyer, Aleksandr Boykov, said this week that he expected the trial to last up to two months.

She has been held in Correctional Colony No. 1, or IK-1, in the town of Novoye Grishino, a 50-mile drive from central Moscow, a former orphanage, converted a decade ago to house women serving prison sentences. jail or await trial. video images of the prison available online shows tall, gray walls, old prison bars, and a rusty monument to Lenin in the yard.

Russian authorities have not disclosed Ms. Griner’s whereabouts, but The New York Times was able to identify the prison from a photo posted online by a visitor, and the location was confirmed by a person familiar with the case.

For Ms. Griner, every day looks pretty much the same, said Yekaterina Kalugina, a journalist and member of a public prison monitoring group who has visited Ms. Griner in prison. She (she said that Mrs. Griner’s prison mattress was too small for someone her size).

The inmates wake up, have breakfast in their cell — usually some basic food — and then go for a walk in the prison yard, which is covered by a net. The rest of the day is spent reading books (for example, Griner has been reading Dostoyevsky in translation) and watching TV, although all the channels are in Russian, Kalugina said.

The cell has a separate private bathroom, he said, something of a first for Russian prisons. They are allowed to shower only twice a week.

Thousands of Russian women have passed through it, along with at least one other known foreigner: Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American arrested in April 2019 when Russian police said she found 9.5 grams, a third of an ounce, of marijuana. in his luggage while on a layover at a Moscow airport.

Ms. Issachar was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison on drug possession and smuggling charges, with Israeli officials and her family saying the Kremlin had linked her fate to that of a Russian detained in Israel. No trade was made — Israel extradited the Russian detainee to the United States to face cybercrime charges — but Putin, who was cultivating ties with Israel, pardoned Issachar 10 months after she was arrested.

In a telephone interview from Israel, her mother, Yaffa Issachar, said her daughter cried when she heard about Ms. Griner’s case, telling her: “I know what you are going through now.”

The mother said that Naama Issachar had been treated relatively well by her cellmates, but that she feared that Ms. Griner, as a gay woman, might be treated worse because of Russia’s conservative attitudes and discriminatory laws on homosexuality.

Mrs. Ishaffar suggested that Mrs. Griner’s family find a priest who could visit her. “There’s someone watching them,” she said, “but at least he’s a human you can talk to.”

Ms. Griner, who plays center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, is a seven-time league All-Star, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the first openly gay athlete to sign an endorsement deal with Nike.

But female basketball players are paid a fraction of what their male counterparts earn in the United States, which is why Ms. Griner, like many others, has also played during the WNBA offseason in foreign leagues where contracts are much more lucrative. She played for two seasons in China, and since 2014 she plays in Russia, for UMMC Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains.

On February 17, he landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, where his bags were checked. She never reached the Urals.

The report was contributed by Michael Crowley, Elizabeth Kershner, jonathan abrams Y Tania Ganguli.

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