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Russian prosecutors call first witnesses in case against Brittney Griner

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow, as her trial begins on Friday.
Alexander Zemlianichenko
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing in Khimki just outside Moscow, as her trial begins on Friday.

Updated July 1, 2022 at 9:08 AM ET

KHIMKI, RUSSIA — The trial for Brittney Griner, a WNBA star who has been detained in Russia for more than four months on drug charges, began Friday with prosecutors sharing new details about the case.

U.S. Embassy officials are on hand for the trial. Press access is tightly controlled, but a crowd of journalists crammed together to catch a glimpse of Griner, in handcuffs and a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, being escorted by guards into the courtroom at Khimki City Court, just outside of Moscow.

During Friday's hearing, Griner was not asked to declare her innocence or guilt. That phase of the legal process will come later.

Prosecutor says Griner imported two hash cartridges

Griner was arrested on Feb. 17, after authorities at a Moscow area airport allegedly found cannabis vape cartridges in her luggage. She could face up to 10 years in prison if she's convicted of drug smuggling charges.

At Friday's court session, prosecutors unsealed their case against Griner.

Russian state news agency Tass, which had a staff member in the courtroom, reported that the indictment alleges that before traveling to Russia in February, Griner "bought two cartridges for personal use, which contained 0.252 grams and 0.45 grams of hash oil."

A security inspection allegedly uncovered the cartridges in the basketball star's luggage when she arrived on a flight from New York to Sheremetyevo International Airport in Khimki.

Two witnesses testified for the prosecution — customs agents who were working at the airport when Griner's bags were inspected, Griner's lawyer, Alexander Boikov, told NPR. Prosecutors will likely have four hearings before the defense gets its turn, he said.

As for Griner's mindset right now, Boikov said that she is "a bit worried" because of the trial and the potential of a prison sentence — "but she's a tough lady and I think she will manage."

The next hearing is slated for July 7. A Russian judge has ordered Griner to be detained for the length of her trial.

The U.S. says Griner is being held as a bargaining chip

After Friday's hearing, U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Rood said she spoke with Griner in the courtroom.

"She asked me to convey that she is in good spirits and is keeping up the faith," Rood said.

In early May, the Biden administration declared Griner to be wrongfully detained by Russia's government. The U.S. believes the Putin regime ordered Griner's arrest so it could use her as leverage.

"Wrongful detention as a bargaining chip is a threat to the safety of everyone traveling and living abroad," U.S. Ambassador to Russia John J. Sullivan said in May. He and other U.S. officials have said their top priority is to help Griner and other citizens detained in Russia.

Terri Jackson, executive director of the union representing WNBA players, told NPR that she wants the president to do more.

"We want President Biden, our elected official, to have a meeting, a sit-down, a face-to-face with Cherelle Griner, BG's wife. Because you know what? She deserves that."

When contacted by NPR about that request, a White House spokesperson noted that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan "spoke with Brittney's wife this past week and the White House is closely coordinating with the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, who has met with Brittney's family, her teammates, and her support network."

The U.S. government "continues to work aggressively – using every available means – to bring her home," the spokesperson said.

Griner has played basketball in Russia for years

Griner, 31, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and star center with the Phoenix Mercury. Her ordeal began one week before Russia invaded Ukraine, and her detention has been extended repeatedly. A request for home detention was also denied.

Like many WNBA players, Griner earns far more than her WNBA salary by playing overseas during the U.S. offseason. For years now, she has played for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg, which is owned by oligarch Iskander Makhmudov. The team has had longstanding ties to the Mercury.

"They know who they have," Jackson said, noting Griner's decorated career both in the U.S. and Russia.

"She's a hero in their country. I mean, they love women's basketball," Jackson said. "They take their championships very seriously. And let's be clear: she's given them more than a few."

As Griner's supporters call for her release, the WNBA is marking her absence from its current season by emblazoning her initials and number — BG42 — on the home courts of its 12 teams.

Kremlin denies playing politics in Griner's case

The Kremlin insists the case isn't politically motivated. Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that he wouldn't comment on an ongoing court case — but he then spoke about what he said are the facts of the matter.

"I can only state the facts," Peskov said, saying Griner was apprehended "with forbidden compounds that contained narcotic substances." He added, "Only the court can do something in terms of handing down any verdicts."

The State Department recently affirmed its Level 4 advisory against travel to Russia. Aside from the disruptions related to the country's invasion of Ukraine, Americans are at risk in Russia, the agency said.

"Russian security services have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, singled out U.S. citizens in Russia ... denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence," the advisory states.

Maynes reported from Russia. Chappell reported from Washington, D.C.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.