In a courthouse just outside of Moscow, Brittney Griner, the WNBA star and political hostage who has been wrongfully detained in Russia for over five months, gave her first court testimony Wednesday regarding the nature of her February arrest.
Griner, according to the New York Times, told the courtroom at Khimki District Court that no one explained her rights to her at the time of her detention, as she was entrenched in a confusing foreign judicial system that offered little to no support or guidance. This is not the first time Griner has addressed the court in person, however: She delivered her guilty plea to the court earlier this month, though various legal experts have interpreted the plea to be more of a strategic ploy than a legitimate admission of guilt. Although Griner is likely to be convicted, her legal team hopes her testimony will make way for a lighter sentencing.
Griner was arrested earlier this year at the Sheremetyevo International Airport, near Moscow, while traveling to play in Russia’s lucrative basketball league. Though she normally plays basketball with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, Griner regularly spent her off seasons in Russia playing for the UMMC Ekaterinburg, where she was reportedly compensated close to $1 million per season. After a Russian agent pulled her aside for a luggage check and questioned her at the airport, Griner was charged with transporting trace amounts of cannabis oil in vape cartridges found in her luggage, and is currently being tried on criminal drug smuggling charges. Her criminal trial commenced in July, several months after the U.S. officially recognized Griner as a wrongfully detained hostage. Vladimir Putin and Russian government officials have repeatedly denied that Griner is a political prisoner.
According to the Times, Griner’s testimony took place in a “tense” courtroom atmosphere, as she described her arrival in Russia after a grueling 13-hour flight, having just recovered from Covid. After an agent searched her luggage, Griner said the agent began to interrogate her, though much of that conversation was never translated into English. Griner was then asked to sign documents with no explanation of what they entailed, opting to use Google Translate herself, according to a Reuters reporter present during the proceedings. Griner clarified that she was provided a translator at the airport, though he only directed her to “sign this, sign that,” without any further translation. She claimed she never received an explanation of her rights, nor was she immediately given access to a lawyer. Hours later, she was handcuffed and detained, Griner said.
Though Griner previously acknowledged that she did have vape cartridges in her bag, she clarified Wednesday that she’s unsure how they wound up there, given that she’d packed in a hurry, according to an AP reporter who was also in attendance for the hearing. Griner also testified that she was in chronic pain from injuries she suffered throughout the demanding WNBA season, noting that cannabis is regularly used in the U.S. as an effective medical treatment for such pain. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said last week, however, that the legal status of marijuana in the U.S. is entirely unrelated to its status in Russia, where the drug has long been criminalized and can carry a sentence of up to 10 years.
Griner “explained to the court that she knows and respects Russian laws and never intended to break them,” said Maria Blagovolina, a partner at the Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm who is representing Griner. “Brittney confirmed that she had a doctor’s prescription for the use of medical cannabis, and that in the U.S.A. medical cannabis is quite a popular treatment among professional athletes. She emphasized that never planned to bring it to Russia and use it.”
The Mercury player spoke to the court from an enclosed witness box with her wrists shackled—customary legal practice in Russia. Prior to the start of Wednesday’s court proceedings, Griner’s legal team had requested that Griner be allowed to testify outside of the box due to her height (she is 6’ 9”). But the judge, Anna Sotnikova, denied the request, instead allowing Griner to testify seated, according to Russian news outlet TASS.
During a break in Tuesday’s hearing, Griner told ABC News from her defendant’s cage that she had a message for her wife, Cherelle: “Good luck on the bar exam.” (Cherelle graduated from the North Carolina Central University Law School earlier this year.) Griner added, having likely been advised or compelled to do so, that she had “no complaints” and is just “waiting patiently” for her return home. Earlier that morning, she had held up two photographs in court; she told ABC the photos picture “my wife, my two best friends, my teammates.”
There are currently no estimates for how long the trial will run, but a court extended Griner’s detention through at least Dec. 20. Her nightmare continues.