With the Russian trial of US basketball star Brittney Griner expected to conclude this week, the Russian government has become increasingly critical of public appeals by the US to release Griner, lamenting the use of “megaphone diplomacy”.
The two-time Olympic gold medallist was detained at a Moscow airport in February when she entered the country with vape canisters containing cannabis oil. Griner has pleaded guilty, but said bringing the canisters into Russia was not intentional.
During the hearing, on Tuesday prosecutors called a state narcotics expert who analysed cannabis found in Griner’s luggage. Her defence fielded a specialist who challenged the analysis, charging that it was flawed and did not conform to official rules.
Griner was escorted into court in handcuffs and placed inside a cage during the trial in Khimki, a town on the northern edge of Moscow. While in the cage, she held up personal photos.
Last week Griner had pleaded for leniency, saying that she never intended to break any laws.
She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
The trial adjourned until Thursday, when closing statements are scheduled.
The US has promoted a prisoner exchange that could secure her release. Russian officials have said an exchange can only happen after the trial is over.
“She still knows that the end (of her trial) is near and, of course, she heard the news, so she is hoping that sometime she could be coming home,” Griner’s lawyer Maria Blagovolina said.
The US has claimed that Griner and Paul Whelan, an American who was taken into custody by Russia in December 2018 on charges of espionage, are being “wrongfully detained”. A Russian court convicted Whelan in June 2020 and sentenced him to 16 years in prison.
US President Joe Biden’s administration has called the prisoner swap, which reportedly would exchange Whelan and Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, a “substantial proposal”. Relations between Moscow and Washington have become increasingly strained over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the release of Griner and Whelan is a “top priority” and pushed Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to accept the prisoner exchange proposal during a phone call last week.
The Lavrov-Blinken call marked the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops into Ukraine more than five months ago, the direct outreach at odds with US efforts to isolate the Kremlin.
As the US steps up its effort to bring Griner and Whelan home, the Kremlin has also bristled at suggestions that the trial is politically motivated and that the two Americans are being improperly detained.
“We still believe that any exchanges of information on this topic should be discreet,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said to reporters. “Megaphone diplomacy and the public exchange of opinions will not lead to results.”
Griner’s lawyer has said that an exchange would be “legally possible”. Bout, the Russian arms dealer the US is offering in exchange for Whelan and Griner, is known as the “Merchant of Death” and is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US.
However, a Kremlin spokesperson told reporters last week that “a concrete result has not yet been achieved”.
Griner’s trial, which began in July, has featured testimony from a US physician who confirmed that she had a prescription to use cannabis oil for a chronic injury. Russian teammates from UMMC Ekaterinburg, where Griner was travelling to play before the start of the US basketball season, have also testified before the court vouching for her good character.
In a letter to Biden, Griner said that she was “terrified” that she could be imprisoned in Russia and urged him to do everything in his power to bring her home.
The Kremlin has said the case against Griner has nothing to do with politics and that she is facing the possibility of prison time for violating Russian laws, and that the medicinal use of cannabis in the US has no bearing on the trial in Russia.