Brittney Griner poised to testify in Russian court

After several calm days of her legal team calling character witnesses on her behalf and arguing for a lenient sentence, Brittney Griner’s next appearance in Russian court is likely to be a bit more intense.

The judge is expected to directly interrogate her on Wednesday, her attorney Maria Blagovolina told Yahoo Sports.

Griner faces up to 10 years in Russian prison after she flew into a Moscow airport in February and Russian customs officials allegedly found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The WNBA star pleaded guilty in court on July 7, arguing that she did not intend to break the law and that she inadvertently brought the vape cartridges into the country because she packed in a hurry.

[UPDATE: Brittney Griner released from Russian prison 10 months after arrest]

Experts anticipate that Griner’s testimony on Wednesday will echo her guilty plea. In a Russian criminal trial, it is common for both the judge and prosecutor to cross-examine the defendant.

Griner was escorted into court in handcuffs on Tuesday wearing a dark hoodie with the slogan “Black lives for peace” printed on the back. An Associated Press photographer captured Griner holding up images of supporters from the courtroom cage that is used to hold defendants during Russian criminal trials.

The slow-moving trial continued on Tuesday with Griner’s legal team summoning a Russian narcology expert. Mikhail Tetyushkin, according to reporters who were present in the courtroom, testified that, while marijuana is illegal in Russia, it is used as a medical treatment for athletes in various countries, including the United States.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner holds images standing in a cage at a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, July 26, 2022. American basketball star Brittney Griner has returned to a Russian courtroom for her drawn-out trial on drug charges that could bring her 10 years in prison if convicted. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)
Brittney Griner holds images standing in a cage at a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, July 26, 2022. (AP)

At a previous hearing this month, Griner’s legal team presented the court with an American doctor’s letter saying that Griner had been prescribed medical marijuana to help her cope with chronic pain from injuries that she sustained during her basketball career. Defense attorneys have also summoned the team captain and team director from Griner’s Russian basketball club to vouch for her character.

Tom Firestone, ​​the former resident legal adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told Yahoo Sports that Griner’s legal team is “doing the right things under the circumstances” but admitted that “whether or not it will help is hard to say.” Doctor’s notes and character witnesses may not result in a more lenient sentence for Griner if she is truly more political pawn than criminal defendant.

Griner’s trial should be considered “entirely theater,” said Danielle Gilbert, a Dartmouth University foreign policy fellow who specializes in hostage diplomacy. Gilbert contends that the trial is “only about Russia’s efforts to legitimize holding Griner” while Russian officials seek to trade her in a prisoner exchange or for some other concession from the United States.

Griner’s imprisonment comes at a time of renewed hostility and distrust between the U.S. and Russia. Relations between the two nations are at their lowest point since the Cold War as a result of Russia’s assault on Ukraine and the U.S. joining Western allies in imposing economic sanctions.

The State Department has declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” in Russia since May and has described negotiating a deal to secure her freedom as a top priority. Russian officials have bristled at that classification and have demanded that the U.S. respect the laws of their country.

On July 4, Griner sent President Biden a letter urging him to “please don’t forget about me and the other American detainees.”

“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” she wrote.

Efforts to negotiate Griner’s release may be complicated by Russia’s apparent asking price in a potential prisoner exchange. Russian state media outlets have linked Griner’s case to the fate of notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who earned the nickname “Merchant of Death” after smuggling military-grade weapons to rogue leaders and insurgent groups across Africa and beyond.

Griner's attorneys have said they expect her trial to conclude by early August. Blagovolina told Yahoo Sports that she'll have a better idea when sentencing will occur after Wednesday's hearing.