Jailed American basketball star Brittney Griner returns to a Russian court on Thursday amid growing calls for Washington to do more to secure his release nearly five months after his arrest on drug charges.
Griner was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil were allegedly found in her luggage. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale drug transport.
The trial of the Phoenix Mercury star and two-time Olympic gold medalist began last week, but the second session was adjourned because two scheduled witnesses failed to appear. Such delays are not uncommon in Russian courts and his detention has been granted until December 20, suggesting the proceedings could take months.
It was unclear whether Griner would testify on Thursday.
Although Griner supporters initially kept a low profile, calls in the United States for them to act grew after the first day of the trial.
The State Department designated her as wrongfully detained, placing her case under the supervision of its Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.
However, Washington has not made its strategy public in this matter and the United States may have little leverage over Moscow due to strong animosity over Russia’s military actions in Ukraine. The White House said President Joe Biden called Griner’s wife on Wednesday to assure her he was doing everything he could to secure the athlete’s release as soon as possible. They spoke after Biden read a letter from Griner in which she said she feared she would never return home.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, one of America’s most prominent black activists, this week called on Biden to hold a prayer meeting with Griner, saying, “Four months is too long to go on, and I hope the president will act on her pleas to go home.
An organization called Win With Black Women sent Biden a letter saying that Secretary of State Antony Blinken “called Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, assuring her and publicly stating that Brittney’s safe return was a personal priority; however, we are concerned that the rhetoric does not appear to match the actions taken to date. We urge you to strike a deal to bring Brittney home quickly.
Russian media have repeatedly speculated that Griner could be traded for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the dealer of death”, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States for conspiracy to kill US citizens and help a terrorist organization.
Russia has been agitating for years for Bout’s release. But the wide gap between Griner’s alleged offense and Bout’s global deals in lethal weapons could make such an exchange unpleasant for Washington.
Others have suggested she could be swapped with Paul Whelan, a former naval and security director serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on an espionage conviction the United States has repeatedly described as a configuration.
Russia has shown no signs of backing down.
“This is a serious offense, confirmed by indisputable evidence (…) Attempts to present the case as if the American was unlawfully detained do not hold,” the ministry spokesman said on Wednesday. of Foreign Affairs, Alexei Zaitsev.
“The law has been broken and arguments about the innocent nature of Griner’s addiction, which, by the way, is punishable in some US states, are inappropriate in this case,” he said.