MOSCOW — More than four months after she was arrested at a Moscow airport for alleged cannabis possession, a Russian court has set the start date for the trial of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner for Friday.
The Phoenix Mercury star was also ordered to remain in custody for the duration of her criminal trial. She could face 10 years in prison if convicted on charges of large-scale transportation of drugs. Fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in the U.S., acquittals can be overturned.
On Monday, the court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki extended Griner’s detention for another six months after she appeared for a preliminary hearing held behind closed doors. Photos obtained by the AP showed her appearing in handcuffs. Griner had previously been ordered to remain in pretrial detention until Saturday.
Several officials and experts familiar with Griner’s case told ESPN’s T.J. Quinn that a trial — and a conviction — were always likely developments, as they were for Americans Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan. Regardless of whether Russian prosecutors present compelling, specious or flat-out fabricated evidence against Griner, the sources said it doesn’t change the basic dynamic: Russia has indicated that it is willing to negotiate her release, and the legal proceedings are simply a pretense to put a sheen of legitimacy on the saga.
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 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 sought 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 United States.
Others have suggested that she could be traded in tandem with Whelan, a former Marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction that the United States has repeatedly described as a setup.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, asked Sunday on CNN whether a joint swap of Griner and Whelan for Bout was being considered, sidestepped 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 he added, “I can’t comment in any detail on what we’re doing, except to say this is an absolute priority.”
Any swap would apparently require Griner to first be convicted and sentenced, then apply for a presidential pardon, Maria Yarmush, a lawyer specializing in international civil affairs, told Kremlin-funded TV channel RT.
“This may sound counterintuitive, but the trial is a crucial part of the process,” Dr. Danielle Gilbert, assistant professor of military and strategic studies at the United States Air Force Academy, told ESPN. “The Russians have to keep pretending that this is a legitimate arrest. There is no reason to believe that the charges are legitimate or that her trial will be fair. But if and when she’s convicted, the Russians will have made clear their credible alternative to a deal to bring her home.
Hostage diplomacy cases rely on the pretense of law. With Brittney Griner — and Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed before her — the Russians are using our own respect for the rule of law against us.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.