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WNBA star Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug charges in Russian court


American basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Moscow court Thursday, her lawyers said, as her family and friends stepped up their calls for the U.S. government to do more to free her.

Griner, 31, could withstand 10 years in prison on drug smuggling charges under Russian law. She was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage.

Griner’s lawyer, Alexander Boikov, said after the hearing that the basketball star admitted that the vape canisters were hers, but she brought them to Russia unintentionally.

Her other lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, said they hope for the leniency of the court. Griner’s next hearing will happen next Thursday.

The WNBA player’s trial on drug charges began last week.

Her latest appearance comes after President Joe Biden sought to reassure Griner’s wife that he was working to secure her release as fast as he could. Griner penned an emotional letter to the president earlier this week, pleading with him to bring her home.

Her arrest took place just days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, and has highlighted the frayed relations between Washington and Moscow.

The Kremlin has been accused of using Griner as a political pawn while the Biden administration has said she has been “wrongfully detained.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied Griner was being held as a hostage in Russia.

Griner is a 6-foot-9 native of Houston, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a middle for the Phoenix Mercury. She entered the court on Thursday wearing glasses, a red t-shirt and red pants. She was led into the courtroom in handcuffs before being placed in a white metal cage. Griner was later joined within the courtroom by three U.S. embassy representatives and her lawyers, with no TV cameras and only a number of journalists allowed in.

Griner, who plays for a Russian basketball team in the course of the WNBA’s offseason, has made no public statements since her detention and it’s unclear what she makes of the accusations against her or what she says were the circumstances surrounding her arrest.

Since her trial began, her family, friends and colleagues have increased their calls for the U.S. to do more to bring her home.

Her team held a rally in her support in Phoenix on Wednesday while Rev. Al Sharpton urged Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday to rearrange for him and a bunch of religion leaders to satisfy Griner in Russia.

The White House said Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, on Wednesday to guarantee her that he’s working to secure Griner’s release as soon as possible. He also read her a draft of the letter he was sending Griner on Wednesday, in keeping with the White House readout of the decision.

It got here after Griner said within the handwritten letter addressed to Biden earlier this week that she was terrified she could possibly be in Russian jail without end, imploring him to do all he can to bring her home.

In May, the State Department reclassified Griner as having been “wrongfully detained” and transferred oversight of her case to the State Department presidential envoy for hostage affairs. 

U.S. officials have said they’re working behind the scenes to free her.

To this point, Washington has not officially commented on any possible prisoner swaps, despite speculation in Russian state media in May that Griner could possibly be exchanged for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who’s serving a 25-year prison sentence within the U.S. NBC News wasn’t able to substantiate those reports. 

There are also growing questions over whether Griner could possibly be traded together with Paul Whelan, one other American serving a 16-year sentence for espionage.

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Alexey Zaitsev said Griner was arrested for “a serious offense, confirmed by indisputable evidence.” But he said she is free to file an appeal and to ask for clemency. As to the possible prisoner exchange, he said the court would have to achieve a verdict first, which he estimated could take at the very least a month.

The Russian state news agency Tass cited the foreign ministry Thursday as saying that “publicity and hype” within the media and online around Americans detained in Russia impede the interaction between Moscow and the U.S. on prisoner exchanges.

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