Brittney Griner hearing comes in hopes of prisoner swap with Russia
The basketball player was escorted to a cramped court on the outskirts of Moscow by a team of masked SWAT police, underscoring how seriously Russian law enforcement is taking his case.
One of the experts, Dmitry Gladyshev, testified that cannabis checks by a state expert on vape cartridges in Griner’s luggage did not meet legal requirements. The hearing was adjourned to Thursday.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington had made a “substantial offer” to Moscow for a prisoner swap involving Griner and Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted of espionage. Whelan says he was framed.
Russian officials said no deal had been reached. The State Department has accused the United States of trying to use public pressure to secure Griner’s release, warning that it will not help its cause. Russian officials have hinted there may be a willingness to negotiate a prisoner swap, but only after his trial is over.
Proposal for Griner, Whelan follows history of US-Russian prisoner exchanges
Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, present at the hearing, said embassy staff would continue to support Griner until he returned safely to the United States, as well as other Americans imprisoned in Russia.
Griner previously pleaded guilty to transporting two vape cartridges containing cannabis oil into the country in mid-February. She was arrested at a time when relations between Washington and Moscow were strained, with President Vladimir Putin preparing to invade Ukraine.
Her lawyers pleaded for clemency last week, arguing that she had no intention of breaking Russian law. Griner testified that she packed in a hurry and didn’t know how the vape cartridges ended up in her luggage. The basketball star said she used cannabis to relieve chronic pain from injuries. She said law enforcement officials did not read her her legal rights before the arrest.
President Biden and Putin opened a channel for prisoner swap negotiations after meeting last year, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Former Marine Trevor Reed, convicted of assaulting police officers, was traded in April for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence in the United States for drug trafficking.
US and Russian officials have not confirmed media reports that Washington has offered to trade arms dealer Viktor Bout, 55, nicknamed the “dealer of death”, for Griner and Whelan. Russia has called for Bout’s release for years, calling his imprisonment “unlawful”. He is serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois for conspiracy to kill US nationals and selling weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Russia really wants Viktor Bout back. The question is: Why?
Another American, schoolteacher Marc Fogel, 61, who like Griner was arrested for drug trafficking after smuggling cannabis into the country for the treatment of chronic pain, is serving a 14-year sentence in a Russian prison high security.
Fogel has not been classified by the US State Department as wrongfully detained, which means he is barred from negotiations on any exchange. He smuggled 17 grams of cannabis into the country, while Griner pleaded guilty to importing 0.702 grams. Like Griner, he pleaded guilty, hoping for leniency.
Both were held at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, and Fogel’s trial took place at the same court in Khimki on the outskirts of Moscow, where Griner’s trial resumed on Tuesday.
Fogel’s wife, Jane Fogel, told the Washington Post last week that she hoped her husband could be included in any prisoner swap, but feared he would be overlooked.
“I have a feeling in the pit of my stomach that Marc will be left behind,” Jane Fogel said. One of his sisters, Anne Fogel, called the 14-year prison sentence an effective death sentence in comments to CNN.
This American teacher is also in a Russian prison, worried that no one cares
The State Department has not commented on Fogel’s case or why he is not classified as wrongfully detained.
In 2019, Israeli-American Naama Issachar was sentenced to seven years in prison after nearly 10 grams of cannabis were found in her backpack during a layover in Moscow while flying from India to Israel. She was released when she was pardoned by Putin, after meeting her mother, Yaffa Issachar, during a January 2020 trip to Israel marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.