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US basketball star Brittney Griner appears in Russian court

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 27, 2022 (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko) 
Jim Heintz, Associated Press

US basketball star Brittney Griner has appeared in a Russian court for a preliminary hearing more than four months after she was arrested at a Moscow airport for cannabis possession.

The Phoenix Mercury star, considered in some polls to be the United States’ most gifted female athlete, 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 acquittals can be overturned.

The trial date has not been announced, but is expected soon. Griner was recently ordered to remain in pre-trial detention until July 2.

Monday’s hearing, held behind closed doors in a court of the Moscow suburb of Khimki, was to address procedural issues.

Griner’s detention and trial come at a 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 US and Russia’s denunciation of US 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 US 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 marines veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.

Russian news media have repeatedly raised speculation that Griner could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death”, who is serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.

Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years, but the discrepancy between Griner’s case — she was allegedly 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 US.

Others have suggested she could be traded in tandem with Paul Whelan, a former marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction that the US has repeatedly described as a set-up.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken, asked on CNN whether a joint swap of Griner and Mr 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 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 be convicted and sentenced, then apply for a presidential pardon, according to Maria Yarmush, a lawyer specialising in international civil affairs.

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