This week’s trial in Russia regarding the detention of WNBA star Brittney Griner has shed light on details of her arrest, including her testimony that she was not given key information about her rights granted by the Russian law.
Sitting in a courtroom near Moscow on Wednesday, Griner denied prosecutors’ drug trafficking charges and said she had no intention of bringing any cannabis oil found to Russia. in his luggage in February.
Griner pleaded guilty to the charges earlier this month in an attempt to mitigate his sentence, which could be up to 10 years in prison. His arrest and trial sparked an international outcry, and the US State Department called his detention unjust.
Yet, with his trial set to continue next month, CNN has learned that the Biden administration has offered Russia a prisoner swap of Griner and fellow American detainee Paul Whelan for a convicted Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year sentence in the United States – a proposal that Griner’s Russian lawyers say caught them off guard.
Here are the latest developments in Griner’s lawsuit and what lies ahead:
After she was stopped by staff at Sheremetyevo International Airport on February 17 and asked to open her luggage, Griner’s luggage was found to contain less than one gram of cannabis oil, according to Russian prosecutors.
No lawyer was present, Griner said, and she said her rights were not explained to her, which under Russian law should have happened within three hours. These rights would include her right to know what she was suspected of and to have access to a defense lawyer from the moment she was detained – including the ability to have a private meeting before her first questioning by authorities.
Griner signed documents that were unclear to her, she said, and she had to use Google Translate on her phone to try to figure out what was going on.
The detention, search and arrest of Griner were “inappropriate”, said Alexander Boykov, one of his lawyers, on Wednesday. More details would be revealed, he said, during oral arguments which are expected to take place “in a few weeks”.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist was aware of Russian drug laws, she testified, and the cannabis oil was in her luggage due to ‘stress packing’ in a hurry.
“I still don’t understand to this day how they ended up in my bags,” Griner said.
Griner “confirmed that she had a medical prescription for the use of medical cannabis”, which “is quite a popular treatment among professional athletes. She stressed that she never planned to bring it to Russia and to use it,” lawyer Maria Blagovolina told reporters after the hearing.
A knee injury forced her to stay in a wheelchair for four months, Griner told the court, and she used the substance for inflamed knee and ankle joints. She also pointed out that she does not use it before tournaments to avoid possible disqualifications.
“No, I would never risk that. I never wanted to hurt my team,” Griner said. She was tested for drugs, her lawyers have previously said, and was clean.
Griner “explained to the court that she knows and respects Russian laws and never intended to break them,” Blagovolina said. Griner also told the court that she enjoyed playing basketball in Russia during the WNBA offseason and that her club, UMMC Ekaterinburg, had become a second home for her, Blagovolina said.
“We continue to insist that, indiscreetly, in a hurry, she packed her suitcase and did not pay attention to the fact that substances authorized for use in the United States ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation,” Boykov said. .
Amid Griner’s detention and trial, months of internal debate by the Biden administration culminated in a U.S. offer to swap Griner and Whelan — whose Russian prison sentence was denounced by the U.S. United as unjust – with convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, people were briefed on the case tell CNN.
The plan has the backing of President Joe Biden and is overriding opposition from the Justice Department, which generally frowns on prisoner swaps, the sources say.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Biden was “directly involved” and approved of the proposal “presented to Moscow, but he declined to provide further details or confirm that Bout was part of the proposal. Blinken said that He also intended to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the coming days – their first conversation since Russia invaded Ukraine.
However, when asked about the offer on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “So far there is no agreement on this issue.”
“Listen, since there are no agreements now that would be finalized, then, accordingly, I have nothing more to add to what has been said,” Peskov said.
Griner’s lawyers, Blagovolina and Boykov, learned of the possible exchange through news reports, they said. Without participating in those talks, the two said they would be happy with any productive outcome.
“From a legal point of view, the exchange is only possible after the court has given its verdict. In any case, we would be really happy if Brittney could come home and hope that will be soon”, they said.
Griner is due to return to Khimki Regional Court on August 2.
Since the report on the proposed swap became public, officials say the families have been kept informed of certain developments and supporters have expressed hope that the deal will be accepted by Russia.
National Security Council communications coordinator John Kirby said a senior administration official spoke with the families before Blinken announced the proposal. Biden recently spoke by phone with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth.
David Whelan, Paul’s brother, said in a statement, “Our family appreciates that the Biden administration is seeking Paul’s release using the resources available to them. We hope that the Russian government will respond to the US government and accept this concession or another concession that will allow Paul to return home to his family.
Trevor Reed, a Navy veteran who returned to the United States in a prisoner exchange earlier this year after being held in Russia for more than two years, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that he believed Griner and Whelan “had a very good chance” of returning home. , “especially given the transparency the administration has shown in this regard.”
“I think, you know, if the Russians aren’t stupid, they’ll take this offer,” Reed said.
Representative Colin Allred of Texas, who worked to pass a bipartisan House resolution calling for Griner’s release, said hearing Griner’s testimony was critical and she did her best to appear in court, but that may not be enough depending on how the Russian government reacts.
“The only reason we’re having this conversation is because they’re trying to use it as leverage against the United States,” Allred told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “Obviously we have to do whatever it takes to get her home, and I hope this package will be accepted by the Russians.”