“I would like to plead guilty, Your Honor,” Griner said Thursday, according to a Reuters reporter in the courtroom. “But there was no intention. I didn’t want to break the law. She then asked to testify at a later date, saying she needed time to prepare, and the court adjourned.
Earlier, a senior Russian official had indicated that no action could be taken on a prisoner swap until the matter was completed.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the push to the United States for a prisoner exchange did not help Griner’s chances of release. Ryabkov spoke to reporters outside the convened court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki.
“Attempts by the US side to foment hype and make noise in the public environment are understandable, but they do not help practically solve the problems,” Ryabkov said.
Griner entered court in handcuffs and wearing a red shirt and red pants, according to video from the public news agency RIA Novosti.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States would not give up working for Griner’s release, as well as that of other Americans detained in Russia, including former Marine Paul Whelan.
“We will not back down until Brittney, Paul Whelan and all the other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” he said. tweeted.
Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Moscow, Elizabeth Rood, was in the courtroom, where she handed Griner a letter from President Biden and spoke briefly about how she is resisting in jail.
“She said she ate well. She is able to read books and under the circumstances is fine,” Rood wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “Most importantly, I was able to share with Ms. Griner a letter from President Biden, and … Griner was able to read that letter.”
Everything you need to know about Brittney Griner in Russia
Rood added that the U.S. government was “committed at the highest level to the safe return home of Ms. Griner and all wrongfully detained U.S. citizens.”
During a hearing last week, Russian customs officials said Griner was found with two vape cartridges in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport in February, a week before the US invaded Ukraine. Russia.
Griner told the court on Thursday that she was in a hurry when she packed her things and the vaping cartridges ended up in her luggage by accident, Russian media reported. Airport workers who witnessed the search of his bags testified for the prosecution, Griner’s attorneys said.
Griner was playing basketball in Russia, as many professional female players overseas do, to supplement his income while maintaining his skills in the offseason.
Ryabkov suggested the Russian side was willing to negotiate once Griner’s case is over, saying “we have a long-established form for discussing these issues.”
“Clearly, the necessary legal proceedings have not been completed. Until then, there is no nominal, formal and procedural basis for any further steps,” Ryabkov said.
The trial will resume on July 14, but it is unclear when Griner will be sentenced. One of his lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, told the Post: “We expect a fairly quick conclusion to the trial: another three to five sessions, no more.”
“We hope that the admission of guilt will prompt the court to issue a more lenient sentence, and we will ask for it,” she added.
Prominent Russian human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who had to flee the country in September, said Russian courts are normally more lenient in cases where people plead guilty.
But this case was highly political, he said, which could mean a tougher sentence. “I think they will try to raise the price as much as possible. I believe they will give him maximum punishment so that the other side reacts,” Pavlov predicted. “Because if they give him a short term or soft, it will be difficult to interest the other party in the negotiations.”
Griner was arrested in the middle heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow, which only escalated during Russia’s war in Ukraine. As diplomatic efforts to avert war failed in January, the US Embassy in Moscow issued an alert warning Americans against travel to Russia.
A White House statement on Wednesday said Griner was being held under “intolerable circumstances.” The statement came after Biden and Vice President Harris called Griner’s wife, Cherelle, assuring her they were doing everything they could to secure Griner’s and Whelan’s release.
A security consultant, Whelan has been in jail since December 2018. He traveled to Moscow for a friend’s wedding and was arrested in his hotel room and convicted of espionage in a closed trial , receiving a 16-year sentence.
Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth Whelan, said the family was “surprised” that Biden called Griner’s wife but didn’t call them, according to the Detroit News.
In a prisoner swap with the United States in April, Moscow swapped Navy veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year prison sentence in Connecticut for drug trafficking. Reed had been sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia after being found guilty of assault endangering the lives of police officers.
Griner recently wrote to Biden begging him not to forget her and the other inmates, saying, “I’m terrified to be here forever.”
Her supporters in the United States say she is a hostage and a political pawn.
Hours after the Phoenix Mercury star’s guilty plea, the WNBA Players Association released a statement of support. “The WNBPA stands with Brittney Griner,” the statement read. “With a 99% conviction rate, Russia’s process is its own. You cannot navigate it or even understand it as our own legal system. What we do know is that the US State Department has determined that Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained for a reason and will continue to negotiate her release regardless of the legal process.
Griner also received support from American women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who was at the White House on Thursday afternoon to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A image posted on Rapinoe’s Instagram account showed her wearing a cream white blazer with the initials “BG” and flowers embroidered on the right lapel.
Russian media have speculated that Washington could trade Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States for conspiring to sell surface-to-air missiles to a terrorist group. alien and kill American citizens. Bout, the inspiration for the Nicolas Cage film ‘Lord of War,’ smuggled guns to warlords in Africa and the Middle East for years until his 2008 arrest in Thailand and extradition to the United States in 2010.
Russia calls Bout’s arrest and conviction “illegal and political” and has called for his release for more than a decade.
Asked about the possibility of a prisoner exchange, Griner’s attorney was wary. “We are lawyers, not diplomats,” Blagovolina said, but she added that Biden’s letter was “an indication that she will get government support and some steps will follow.”
In recent years, there has been a worrying rise in “hostage diplomacy”, in which governments seize citizens of rival nations on flimsy charges to gain leverage. In addition to cases in Russia, there have been similar incidents in China, North Korea and Iran.
In early May, the State Department determined that Griner was wrongfully detained and transferred supervision of her case to Roger Carstens, Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed claims that the charges were political, saying drug offenses were treated seriously in Russia and many other countries.
Natalia Abbakumova in Riga and Gene Wang in Washington contributed to this report.