Russia’s case against international basketball superstar Brittney Griner took a surprising turn Wednesday, July 27 when Griner testified for the first time since her trial began weeks ago. The proceeding began mid-afternoon Moscow time, opening with Griner being cross-examined by the defense.
Wearing a black Nike “Phoenix Basketball” hoodie and having been escorted by a phalanx of security, Griner testified about the troubling circumstances of her arrest and detention. She has been held in a Moscow prison since February 17.
Griner’s lawyers asked that the 6’9″ athlete be allowed to testify outside the cage that is required for defendants in Russian courts. They argued it was too small for Griner to testify in while standing. The judge denied the request, but Griner was allowed to testify sitting down.
Griner, an Olympic gold medalist and WNBA all-star, has been on trial for nearly a month on drug charges that could put her in prison for up to 10 years. Russian officials previously told PGN that she would be detained at least through December 19.
Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her baggage. While medicinal and recreational cannabis are legal in many U.S. states, both are illegal in Russia.
Rather than a simple possession charge which would have allowed her release, Griner was charged with drug smuggling — a charge that implies that she was attempting to smuggle cannabis oil with intent to distribute and sell the drug.
The day before she took the stand, Griner was brought to court. Standing in the defendant’s cage, Griner held up a photo of her wife Cherelle for the media. Asked what she wanted to say to Cherelle she said, “Good luck on the bar exam.”
Asked if she had any complaints, Griner said, “No, no complaints. Waiting patiently.”
Griner has been deemed “wrongfully detained” by the U.S. State Department since May and U.S. officials have told PGN they are working for her release.
In court, Griner testified that when she was initially detained, an interpreter translated only small portions of what transpired when she was detained at Moscow’s airport. Griner said that officials told her to sign documents but never explained what they said.
Griner has worked in Russia during the WNBA off-season since 2014 and has led her team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, to consecutive championships.
During questioning by the prosecution, Griner explained that in addition to the sketchy translation at the airport when she was first detained, she was never given an explanation of her rights. She also said she had no legal representation after she was detained at the airport.
Griner, who is not fluent in Russian, told the court that she used a translation app on her phone to discern what she was being told about her arrest.
The WNBA star pleaded guilty on July 7 — a plea her advisors hoped would allow her to be released in a prisoner swap. Griner said in her plea and again in court, that she had packed quickly to leave for Russia and had no criminal intent in bringing the vape cartridges into the country.
The day before Griner testified in the ongoing trial, her defense team explained that, like many international athletes, Griner uses medicinal marijuana to help with pain due to sports injuries.
As PGN has been reporting since March, Griner’s detention has largely been seen as a political ploy by Russia during complex tensions between Washington and Moscow. Griner was detained just days before Russia invaded Ukraine. The U.S. has supported Ukraine in the conflict.
Amid growing calls for the U.S. to do more to secure her release, the U.S. has engaged in more diplomatic efforts on Griner’s behalf.
At trial, as Griner explained the circumstances of her arrest, it was made clear that the charges against her were bogus. The amount of cannabis oil allegedly found in her bag was a very small amount.
Griner told her Russian defense attorney Maria Blagovolina that after she went through passport control and security at the Moscow airport on Feb. 17, a staff member with a dog asked her to open her bags, before finding two cartridges.
Griner testified that another airport worker then “opened the cartridges, and smelled them.” She said after that her passport was taken.
Griner was given documents to sign. She said she had to use Google to translate so she could understand what she was signing, but it was not sufficient.
There was an interpreter, Griner testified, but the interpreter did not explain what it was that Griner was signing. She also said that she was never read her rights and didn’t even know what they were.
This initial detention kept Griner from making her connecting flight to Yekaterinburg where her Russian team is located. Griner testified that she called her lawyer, but after that her phone was confiscated. Griner told the court that she was not allowed to see her lawyers until the next day.
“At that point it felt like I was being held against my will,” Griner testified. “I asked again what’s going on and when can I see my lawyer. I was then told I have to be interrogated.”
Following her questioning by the defense, Griner was cross-examined by the prosecution. She was asked if she had indeed pleaded guilty to drug smuggling, the charge against her.
Griner said, “I do understand charges against me, I do take responsibility for them being in my bag, but I didn’t plan on bringing anything to Russia.”
Rep. Colin Allred (D-TX), part of a congressional team and Congressional Black Caucus trying to bring Griner home, told CNN that “this sham trial going on, this is a heartbreaking situation.”
Allred said, “Having worked with the State Department and been in multiple meetings with them and knowing the team that is working on this, that everything possible that can be done to bring her home is being done.”
Allred told CNN anchors Alisyn Camerota and Victor Blackwell that the process of securing Griner’s release was haphazard due to the failure of Russia to engage regularly.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said late Wednesday that a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan, is being considered. Blinken said he also will speak with the Kremlin for the first time since before Russia invaded Ukraine.
No details on the proposed deal were given. PGN previously reported that a prisoner swap had been rumored. According to reports Wednesday, the deal was suggested to Russia weeks ago.
Russia has not yet responded to the U.S. offer. What is significant is — just a day after the State Department declined comment on the status of negotiations and just hours after PGN spoke with State — there is now a public acknowledgment of the offer.
In a July 26 press briefing, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that State had “made the case of Brittney Griner, an absolute priority,” and that they are “working actively, quietly behind the scenes to do everything we can” to end her wrongful detention “as quickly as possible.”
Price said he could not go into detail, but said, “There has to be and there is engagement with Russian authorities.”
Price added that State is working closely with Griner’s family. “We are meeting with them. We are having conversations with them. Our consular officers around the world are providing all possible support to Americans who are wrongfully detained.”
Price said. “In the case of Brittney Griner, as you know, she had another court appearance today. Our chargé, the senior-most embassy official currently in Moscow, was present in the courtroom, as was another senior official from our embassy. They had an opportunity to see Brittney Griner, to speak to her, to check in on her welfare. She confirmed that she is doing okay, under the circumstances, and we have routinely conveyed those discussions back to the family, to Brittney Griner’s wife in this case. We’ll continue to do that.”
Price added, “We are never going to be satisfied until Brittney Griner is back with her wife.”
Testimony lasted July 27 for nearly three hours. The next court date is scheduled for August 2.