Brittney Griner, Women’s Basketball Star, Goes on Trial in Russia

Brittney Griner arrived in Russia in February to play basketball, one of many sport’s greatest stars. She arrived in a courtroom outdoors Moscow on Friday as one thing else completely — a possible bargaining chip in Russia’s tense standoff with the West over the conflict in Ukraine, described by supporters as a hostage of the Kremlin.

After greater than 4 months languishing in a Russian jail, and talking no Russian, Ms. Griner, 31, went on trial, accused of carrying into the nation vape cartridges with traces — 0.7 grams, the prosecutor stated — of hashish oil. In a authorized system that hardly ever finds defendants something however responsible, she faces as much as 10 years in a penal colony if convicted.

Ms. Griner’s arrest on Feb. 17 — per week earlier than the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — pulled her into the maw of geopolitics as President Vladimir V. Putin confronted a decided Western effort to assist Ukraine battle again. She has been touted in Russian state media as an asset who could possibly be traded for a Russian arms vendor sitting in an American jail.

Although Russia’s drug legal guidelines can carry harsh penalties, a foreigner caught with a small quantity would often face not more than a month in jail, a tremendous and deportation, however Mr. Putin’s authorities has a protracted historical past of utilizing detention for worldwide leverage, typically to acquire the discharge of a Russian held overseas.

With little data to go on, Ms. Griner’s supporters fear about her bodily and emotional well being and the way she is being handled — an brazenly homosexual, Black American in a culturally conservative nation that has adopted anti-gay legal guidelines, has few Black individuals and sees the US as its nemesis. They cite her linguistic isolation and the near-certainty that she is being held in situations not designed to accommodate her 6-foot-9 body.

“She’s telling me she’s OK,” her spouse, Cherelle, who has been in a position to talk together with her solely by way of letters, stated in a latest radio interview with the Rev. Al Sharpton. Cherelle Griner stated Brittney Griner had vowed, “I gained’t allow them to break me.”

However Brittney Griner is struggling, her spouse stated. “She’s a human, she’s there terrified, she’s there alone,” Cherelle Griner stated. “It’s not simply that she will be able to’t communicate to her family members. She will’t communicate to anybody as a result of she doesn’t communicate the language. It’s inhumane on all sorts of ranges.”

In a courtroom in Khimki, outdoors of Moscow, on Friday, Ms. Griner reduce an incongruous determine, as at all times towering above everybody else as she was led in, her lengthy, tattooed arms cuffed collectively and cuffed to the arm of a guard. For the primary day of her trial, she wore a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and athletic footwear with out laces.

She sat within the defendant’s cage with a bottle of water and a bag of cookies, and instructed a reporter that detention was onerous due to the language barrier and a scarcity of train, Reuters reported. The session, carried out in Russian with a couple of journalists and three U.S. embassy officers current, was rapidly adjourned after some anticipated witnesses failed to indicate up. The trial is about to renew subsequent Thursday.

A prosecutor instructed the courtroom that Ms. Griner was “conscious sufficient” that transporting narcotics into Russia was forbidden, in accordance with the state-owned Russian information company Tass. Ms. Griner stated that she understood the fees however would categorical her response to them later, the company stated.

Cherelle Griner and others have questioned whether or not the Biden administration is doing sufficient to safe Brittney Griner’s launch, a view the State Division appeared decided on Friday to dispel. Elizabeth Rood, the chargé d’affaires on the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, attended the trial and talked with reporters afterward.

“I did have the chance to talk with Ms. Griner within the courtroom,” Ms. Rood stated. “She is doing in addition to may be anticipated in these tough circumstances and requested me to convey that she is in good spirits and is maintaining the religion.”

“The Russian Federation has wrongfully detained Ms. Griner,” she stated, including, “the U.S. authorities on the very highest ranges is working very onerous to convey Ms. Griner in addition to all wrongfully detained U.S. residents safely house.”

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken tweeted, “We — and I personally — haven’t any increased precedence than bringing her and different wrongfully detained People” again house.

In a information convention on Friday, Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, denied that the case was politically motivated, or that the federal government was even concerned. “Solely the courtroom can go a verdict,” he stated.

However reviews in Russian state media point out that Moscow sees Ms. Griner as a invaluable asset in its confrontation with the US, which is main Western efforts to assist Ukraine resist the Russian invasion. Tass reported in Might that officers have been in talks to trade Ms. Griner for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms vendor who’s serving a 25-year sentence in a U.S. federal jail for conspiring to promote weapons to individuals who stated they deliberate to kill People.

In April, the Biden administration secured the discharge of Trevor R. Reed, a former U.S. Marine held for 2 years in Russia on what his household stated have been bogus expenses of assault, in a swap for a Russian pilot sentenced to a prolonged jail time period in the US on cocaine trafficking expenses.

American officers haven’t confirmed any talks about exchanging Ms. Griner. The Kremlin has pressed for years for the discharge of Mr. Bout, however U.S. officers are reluctant to take any steps that could possibly be seen as risking the protection of People.

Photographs and movies have supplied transient public glimpses of Ms. Griner arriving in courtroom and leaving. Followers scrutinize the pictures, which some have described as heartbreaking, for clues to her well-being within the expressions behind her spherical glasses.

Authorized consultants say Ms. Griner’s trial was all however sure to finish in a conviction regardless of the clamor in the US for her launch. Her lawyer, Aleksandr Boikov, stated this week that he anticipated the trial to last as long as two months.

She has been held in Correctional Colony No. 1, or IK-1, within the village of Novoye Grishino, a 50-mile drive from central Moscow — a former orphanage, transformed a decade in the past to carry girls serving jail sentences or awaiting trial. Video footage of the jail obtainable on-line exhibits tall, grey partitions, outdated jail bars and a rusty monument to Lenin within the courtyard.

The Russian authorities haven’t disclosed Ms. Griner’s whereabouts, however The New York Occasions was in a position to determine the jail from {a photograph} revealed on-line by a customer, and the situation was confirmed by an individual accustomed to the case.

For Ms. Griner, every single day there appears to be like just about the identical, stated Yekaterina Kalugina, a journalist and member of a public jail monitoring group who has visited Ms. Griner within the jail. (She stated that Ms. Griner’s jail mattress was too small for somebody her dimension.)

The inmates get up, have breakfast of their cell — often some primary meals — after which go for a stroll within the jail’s courtyard, which is roofed by a web. The remainder of the day is stuffed with studying books — Ms. Griner has been studying Dostoyevsky in translation, as an illustration — and watching tv, although the entire channels are in Russian, Ms. Kalugina stated.

The cell has a separate non-public washroom, she stated, one thing of a novelty for Russian prisons. They’re allowed to bathe solely twice per week.

Hundreds of Russian girls have handed by way of it, together with no less than one different well-known foreigner: Naama Issachar, an Israeli-American arrested in April 2019 when the Russian police stated they’d discovered 9.5 grams — one-third of an oz — of marijuana in her baggage as she was connecting at a Moscow airport.

Ms. Issachar was sentenced to seven and a half years in jail on drug possession and smuggling expenses, and Israeli officers and her household stated the Kremlin had tied her destiny to that of a Russian being held in Israel. No trade was made — Israel extradited the Russian detainee to the US to face pc crime expenses — however Mr. Putin, who was cultivating ties to Israel, pardoned Ms. Issachar 10 months after she was arrested.

In a phone interview from Israel, her mom, Yaffa Issachar, stated that her daughter had cried when she heard about Ms. Griner’s case, telling her: “I do know what she’s going by way of now.”

The mom stated that Naama Issachar had been handled comparatively effectively by her cellmates, however that she feared that Ms. Griner, as a homosexual lady, could possibly be handled worse due to Russia’s conservative attitudes and discriminatory legal guidelines on homosexuality.

Ms. Ishaffar recommended that Ms. Griner’s household discover a priest who may go to her. “There may be any individual watching them,” she stated, “however no less than it’s a human she will be able to speak to.”

Ms. Griner, who performs middle for the Phoenix Mercury of the W.N.B.A., is a seven-time league All-Star, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the primary brazenly homosexual athlete signed to an endorsement contract by Nike.

However feminine basketball gamers are paid a fraction of what their male counterparts make in the US, so Ms. Griner, like many others, has additionally performed throughout the W.N.B.A. low season in abroad leagues the place the contracts are way more profitable. She performed for 2 seasons in China, and since 2014 she has performed in Russia, for UMMC Yekaterinburg within the Ural Mountains.

On Feb. 17, she landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Worldwide Airport, the place her baggage have been searched. She by no means made it to the Urals.

Reporting was contributed by Michael Crowley, Isabel Kershner, Jonathan Abrams and Tania Ganguli.

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