The trial of Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star Brittney Griner started today at a court near Moscow where she faces charges of drug smuggling, CNN reports. Griner, 31, a Phoenix Mercury player who plays in Russia in the WNBA offseason, is accused of smuggling cannabis vape cartridges into the country.
Many consider Griner to be a political pawn by Russian officials amid the country’s invasion of Ukraine. She is considered “wrongfully detained” by U.S. officials and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Griner was detained in March and her detention has been extended three times since her arrest as she awaited trial. No verdict is expected during the first day of the trial which, according to some reports, could last as long as two weeks.
According to a Reuters report, acquittals are rare in Russia, with fewer than 1% of cases ending in a not guilty verdict. The Russian legal system gives state prosecutors wide discretionary powers and defense lawyers provided to defendants often fail to protect their interests.
Tom Firestone, a former resident legal adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and currently a partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, told ESPN that a Russian trial “is not a trial in the U.S. sense.” There are no opening statements or jury selection, and most of the trial is the judge reading the prosecutor’s case file into the record; the judge also often leads the questioning.
While Russian media will likely cover parts of the proceedings, western media will be barred from the courtroom.
In May, Russian agency TASS suggested that Russia may be willing to exchange Griner for Viktor Bout – a Russian who is being held in the U.S. following an arms dealing conviction. Bout, whose life was the basis for the 2005 film “Lord of War,” was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2010.
Last month, American teacher and former U.S. diplomat Marc Fogel was sentenced to 14 years in prison by a Russian court for “large-scale” cannabis smuggling. Fogel was arrested in August 2021 after customs officials found cannabis – believed to be about 17 grams – in his luggage.
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