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Many loved ones and supporters of US basketball star Brittney Griner have spoken up about her situation and called for her release since she was first detained in Russia on drug charges in February.
As her trial has unfolded over the past month, US-based advocates have ramped up public pressure on the Biden administration to bring her home, while members of the Russian team she plays for in the off-season have testified in defense of her character both on and off the court.
Griner herself hasn’t made many public remarks, beyond issuing a brief guilty plea in which she admitted to bringing cannabis into Russia — where it’s illegal for both medical and recreational purposes — and emphasizing that she packed her bags in a hurry and had no intention of breaking any laws. She could face up to 10 years if convicted.
At a court hearing on Wednesday, the WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist finally took the stand herself to explain why she had the vape cartridges in the first place, how they ended up in her luggage and what happened to her after they were discovered.
“She didn’t need a lot of preparation because she just told her story and she’s had a lot of time to think about it since February,” Griner’s lawyer, Alexander Boikov, told NPR after the hearing. “It’s not hard to tell the truth.”
Griner says her rights weren’t read to her at the time of her arrest
Griner testified that she had traveled to Russia in February to join her Russian team, UMMC Yekaterinburg, for the playoffs. (It’s not unusual for WNBA athletes to play for foreign teams in the off-season to supplement their incomes, which are significantly lower than that of their NBA counterparts.)
She flew to Moscow on Feb. 17, amidst growing global concerns that Russia would launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine — which it went on to do exactly a week later. Griner said she was determined to go, as she didn’t want to let her team down.
Griner was stopped at the airport after customs officers found the vape cartridges in her luggage. She reiterated on Wednesday that she had n’t meant to take them with her to Russia, and conjectured that she had forgotten about them because she’d been stressed and in a hurry to catch her flight.
“I still don’t understand to this day how it got in my bags,” she told the court in her testimony.
While Griner says she’d forgotten about the vape cartridges, she was keenly aware of packing certain comfort foods from home, including her favorite Texas barbecue sauce and spices.
“I like to eat a lot,” she added.
She went on to describe a confusing scene at the airport. Russian authorities were unable to provide translation beyond basic words like “sign this,” forcing her to turn to Google Translate to try to understand what the documents actually said.
“I was told what to do, but not why or what it means,” Griner said.
She also said her rights were never read to her at the airport.
Griner was allowed to access a lawyer before being interrogated, though he says the translation problems continued. She recalled the court providing her with a stack of documents only for a translator to tell her, “Well, basically it says you’re guilty.”
Griner’s legal team said they would present more witnesses at next Tuesday’s hearing, and suggested that their closing arguments would focus on violations of Griner’s legal rights.
“The detention, the search, the arrest, they were imperfect,” Boikov told NPR.
Griner was prescribed medical cannabis for chronic pain
Griner highlighted points previously made by her defense, most notably that she had unintentionally broken Russian law and the hash oil in her bags was legally prescribed to address chronic pain issues.
She explained that she holds a medical cannabis license in Arizona — where she plays for the Phoenix Mercury — and that a doctor had prescribed it to address a litany of chronic injuries affecting her knee and ankle. She said she even had to use a wheelchair for several months.
Griner’s Russian teammate and team doctor have already tested about the toll that the sport has taken on her body and the fact that she’s never failed a drug test.
When asked why she used cannabis, Griner answered that the benefits of medical marijuana outweigh those — and the risks — of other strong painkillers. Griner’s defense had presented an expert witness to discuss how medical marijuana can be used to treat chronic pain at a hearing the previous day, but it was cut short due to excessive heat in the courtroom.
Griner said she was only treated with medical cannabis during the rare breaks in her schedule, most recently in February. She said she would never use it during competition, not only because it could potentially get a team disqualified or banned, but could also ruin a player’s career.
“My career is my whole life,” she said at one point. “I’ve dedicated everything: time, my body, being away from my family. I spend six months of the year away from everybody… There is nothing I wouldn’t do for my career and my team.”
The slow-moving trial is one step closer to a verdict
A Russian judge has ordered Griner detained for the length of her trial, which her legal team says could conclude by mid-to-late August.
The Biden administration, which considers Griner “wrongfully detained,” says bringing her home is a priority. Russia, which insists her case is not political, has indicated an interest in arranging a prisoner swap but says nothing can happen while the trial is still in progress.
Some legal experts believe Griner’s guilty plea is a strategy for a shorter trial and for leniency — especially given that Russian criminal courts have a reported conviction rate of 99%.
Maynes reported from Russia. Treisman reported from Washington, D.C.