WNBA star Brittney Griner’s criminal trial officially began on Friday in a courtroom just outside of Moscow, Reuters reported. Griner, who has been wrongfully detained in Russia for over 130 days, is on trial for drug smuggling charges, and is all but certain to be convicted by the notoriously unjust Russian judicial system.
Griner, who was arrested at a Russian airport for transporting vape cartridges containing traces of cannabis just one week before Russia invaded Ukraine, appeared handcuffed as she was escorted into Khimki City Court. While Russian news agency TASS was given access to the proceedings, western media was reportedly not allowed into the courtroom, though U.S. Embassy officials were present. In a Thursday interview with CNN, Griner’s wife Cherelle Griner said that the 6-foot-9 Phoenix Mercury player is being transported in a “very, very, very tiny cage” on a five-hour round-trip drive the days that she appears in court.
During the proceedings on Friday, a Russian prosecutor accused Griner of smuggling less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage while she was overseas playing basketball. The New York Times, citing reports from TASS, said the Russian prosecutor alleged Griner was “aware enough” that transporting narcotics into Russia was illegal (cannabis is classified as a narcotic drug there). According to a TASS reporter, the prosecutor stated in court:
Being sufficiently aware that the movement of narcotic drugs is not allowed...no later than February 17, 2022 at an unspecified location under unspecified circumstances from an unidentified person [Griner] bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil, totaling 0.702 grams.
The prosecution presented their first two witnesses, including an employee of the Sheremetyevo airport customs services. Alexander Boikov and Maria Blagovolina, Griner’s lawyers, said the employee was interrogated about the WNBA player’s airport detention and search, but did not provide any details from the testimony. The Times also reported that some witnesses did not show up, causing the court to adjourn early.
Boikov told NPR that the prosecution will likely conduct four hearings before the Griner’s defense have an opportunity to present their case. Boikov said Griner is “a bit worried…but she’s a tough lady and I think she will manage.” In the courtroom, U.S. Embassy Charge d’Affaires Elizabeth Rood told CNN that she briefly spoke to Griner, who is “doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances and…asked me to convey that she is in good spirits and is keeping up the faith.”
Cherelle Griner told CNN on Thursday that she does not trust the American government to give her wife’s hostage situation its “maximum amount of effort” and believes that the administration’s rhetoric so far has not been reflected in its actions. (Officials have repeatedly said that the Biden administration is “actively engaged” in efforts to bring Brittney Griner home.) Still, Cherelle has reiterated in multiple interviews that she would like to meet with the president, telling CNN, “I’d love for him to tell me he cares.”
“I have to also push people to make sure that things that they’re telling me is also matching their action,” she said. “I can’t let up, it’s over 130 days and BG’s still not back.”
The U.S. recently failed to connect Brittney and Cherelle Griner’s scheduled phone call due to an administrative error, and the two have been communicating solely via written letters ever since. After seeing disturbing photos of her wife in court, Cherelle said her wife had reassured her that detention hadn’t driven her crazy, though she is exhausted and overwhelmed by the number of people present in the courtroom.
Leading up to the trial, TJ Quinn of ESPN has reported that experts believe Griner is the subject of a “show trial”—a tactic to force the Biden administration into negotiation or a prisoner swap— and that a guilty verdict should not come as a surprise. The Russian judicial system does not use a jury outside of “the most serious felonies,” and anxious American citizens should be prepared for little more than a “recitation of facts” during the trial, he said. Other experts told ESPN that despite the outpouring of calls for Griner’s release, the best defense is often admitting guilt in order to move the process along as swiftly as possible, as Russian judges are sometimes removed from office if they acquit too many defendants.
But that doesn’t mean Cherelle Griner has given up hope, and neither has her wife. “I’m holding on and I won’t break until I come home,” Brittney wrote in a letter to Cherelle. And she may not come home for a very long time.