Russia begins trial of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner

U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner went on trial in a court on the outskirts of Moscow on Friday to hear drug charges that could see her serve up to 10 years in a Russian jail.

Griner, 31, was formally told at this first hearing that she was charged with intentionally importing narcotics into Russia. She spoke to say she understood the charges.

The judge set the next hearing for July 7.

Griner, who has played regularly in Russia as well as in the U.S. Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), was arrested at a Moscow airport in February, allegedly with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.

The case takes place against a backdrop of high tension between Moscow and Washington over the conflict in Ukraine. U.S. officials say Griner has been detained wrongfully.

Griner arrived at Khimki City Court, near Sheremetyevo Airport, in handcuffs shortly after noon (0900 GMT), wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and sneakers without laces.

Three employees of the U.S. embassy, including deputy chief of mission Elizabeth Rood, were present in the courtroom.

Griner sat in the defendant’s cage with a plastic bag of cookies and a bottle of mineral water.

Griner told a Reuters reporter she was finding detention hard because she could not speak Russian, and that she was unable to keep up her fitness because she could do only general exercises such as stretching.

Her lawyers declined to say how she planned to plead.

U.S. officials and numerous athletes have called for the release of Griner – or “BG” as she is known to basketball fans.

Some have expressed concerns that Moscow could use the two-time Olympic gold medallist to negotiate the release of a high-profile Russian in U.S. custody.

Griner, a centre for the Phoenix Mercury, had played for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League to boost her income during the WNBA off-season, like several other U.S. players.

Some have left the Russian league since Griner’s detention and Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, while the WNBA regular season kicked off in May.

Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, told CNN in an interview on Thursday that she hoped for a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, saying: “I would love for him to tell me he cares.”

“The rhetoric and the actions don’t match,” she said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that he had “no higher priority” than bringing home Griner and other “wrongfully detained Americans.”

“We won’t stop working until they are reunited with their loved ones,” he said.

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