U.S. offers deal to Russia to free Brittney Griner as she testifies in Moscow

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RIGA, Latvia — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the United States has made a “substantial proposal” to Russia to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and jailed American Paul Whelan. The announcement came hours after Griner faced the most crucial moment yet in her Moscow trial on drug charges, giving evidence to a judge in a bid for leniency.

She faces 10 years in prison in a case that has further strained US-Russian relations, already badly damaged by the war in Ukraine. Blinken added that he would speak to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a significant break from his past strategy of seeking to avoid contact with senior Russian officials and maximum isolation of Moscow.

The comments from Blinken will intensify speculation about a possible prisoner swap involving Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois for conspiring to kill US nationals and selling weapons to terrorists. The Kremlin has been pushing for his release since his arrest in Thailand in 2008, claiming he was wrongfully convicted in a New York court in 2011.

Blinken would not say whether Bout was part of the deal offered to Russia. Bout’s lawyer told RIA Novosti that he could not comment on the reports of a possible exchange involving his client dele, but added that “this may soon change.”

Griner began her testimony Wednesday by describing her arrest at a Moscow airport in February after customs officials found two cannabis vape cartridges in her baggage. Speaking to the court through an interpreter, she said that her rights were not read to her when she was taken into custody, which is required under Russian law.

She was told where to go through an interpreter, she said, but was not told what was happening. Officials told her to sign documents but did not explain what they were or the consequences of signing them.

Unaware that she was being detained, she asked to leave the customs area to catch the next available flight, but it was told she could not and had her passport taken from her.

In court, the basketball star wore a dark sweatshirt and held a bottle of water in the courtroom cage where defendants are secured in Russian trials. The judge gave Griner permission to give her testimony while sitting after she said that her neck hurt.

The Phoenix Mercury standout, who has played in a Russian league during the WNBA offseason, said she was given a drug test after she was detained and that no illegal drugs were found.

Griner testified that the translation she was offered during the Russian investigation, which lasted from February to May, was inadequate and often left her confused.

“I remember one time there was a stack of papers that [the translator] needed to translate for me,” she recalled. “He took a brief look and then said the exact words were, ‘Basically you are guilty.’ ”

Griner, who pleaded guilty to the charges earlier this month, told the court she knew she could not carry the cartridges into Russia and did not intend to bring them with her.

“I still don’t understand how they ended up in my bag,” she said. “I had no intention to break the law.” She added that she was “rushed packing and stressed packing. … I was in a huge hurry.” She was also recovering from covid-19 and needed to get tested before flying, she said, adding to the stress.

Under cross-examination by the prosecution, Griner was asked whether she admitted to the crime, a key factor determining leniency in Russian courts.

“As they ended up in my bags by accident, I take responsibility, but I did not intend to smuggle or plan to smuggle [banned substances] to Russia,” she replied.

Griner testified that she needed the cannabis oil for pain and inflammation, having suffered many injuries in her career, including to her spine, knee and ankle. She said she was prescribed the cannabis oil by a doctor, adding that many athletes used it.

In Russia, carrying even small amounts of the substance is illegal. The prosecution argues that the 0.02 grams of cannabis vape cartridges found in the “significant” amount.

Griner was aware of a US government warning not to fly to Russia because of tensions between Washington and Moscow, but she said she was determined not to let down her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg.

When her lawyers requested that she be allowed to call her family in the United States, the judge asked for a written motion.

One of her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, a partner at the Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm, said after the hearing that the motion had been submitted.

“It has been five months already, and she hasn’t had a chance to talk to her family. We asked the court to satisfy her motion because of her psychological state,” Blagovolina said.

Summing up the day in court, she said that Griner “explained to the court that she knows and respects Russian laws and never intended to break them.”

The trial will summarize Tuesday.

Griner’s supporters in the United States say she is a Russian “hostage,” but senior Russian Foreign Ministry officials have warned her that political and public pressure release in the United States would not help her cause. They have hinted that Russia may consider a prisoner swap, but only after her trial is complete.

After hearing the news of the US proposal, Griner’s lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov were quoted by Russian outlet RBC as saying: “From a legal point of view, the exchange is possible only after a court verdict. In any case, we will be glad if Brittney is soon at home and we hope that this will happen.”

The White House says that Griner is being held in “intolerable circumstances” and that it is doing everything possible to free her and other wrongfully detained prisoners, including Paul Whelan, a security consultant and ex-Marine arrested in 2018, convicted of spying in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He denies the charges, saying he was set up.

The United States’ efforts to free Griner and Whelan are being handled by the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

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