US basketball star Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug charges in Russia

The two-time Olympic gold medalist denies that she intentionally violated the laws of the country, where she faces up to 10 years in prison

Basketball player Brittney Griner arrives in court near Moscow.
Basketball player Brittney Griner arrives in court near Moscow.YURI KOCHETKOV (EFE)

American basketball star Brittney Griner, 31, pleaded guilty to drug charges on Thursday at a court in Khimki, a satellite city of Moscow, at the second hearing of a trial that could carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. According to Reuters, the Phoenix Mercury athlete told the judge through an interpreter: “I would like to plead guilty, Your Honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.” The American WNBA star is expected to expand her testimony on July 14.

The case gained notoriety in the United States after the player, winner of two Olympic golds for the US team, sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Monday asking him not to forget about her case. The president responded to the letter with a call to Cherelle, Griner’s wife, promising that his government will seek the ahtlete’s release “as soon as possible.”

Griner’s crime was trying to enter Russia with less than one gram of cannabis oil in e-cigarette cartridges. She was caught at a checkpoint at Sheremetyevo International Airport, where she had arrived to join the Yekaterinburg UMMC team as a player while the US league was on break. She was arrested on February 17, but the news did not transpire until early March, a few days after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which placed her at the center of the deteriorated diplomatic relations between Moscow and Washington.

The deputy chief of the US diplomatic mission in Russia, Elizabeth Rood, announced Thursday that she has given Griner a letter written by Biden, and confirmed that she is being properly cared for. “She said she eats well, she can read books and, under these circumstances, she feels fine,” added Rood.

The possibility of a future prisoner swap is on the table. According to Russian media reports from May, citing judicial sources, a swap for Víktor But, a major arms dealer who was sentenced in 2012 to 25 years in prison for supplying weapons to the Colombian FARC guerrilla, has been considered.

The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Riabkov, was expressly asked this Thursday about the possible swap. “It is clear that the necessary judicial procedures have not yet been completed,” the senior official told the Tass news agency. The politician also took the opportunity to defend the Russian justice system, in the spotlight over the imprisonment of opposition politicians and protesters who have spoken out against the Ukraine invasion. The Foreign Ministry has indicated that Griner may appeal the sentence or ask for clemency once a decision is entered.

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