Detained WNBA star Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug charges in Russia

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Detained WNBA star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty on Thursday to bringing hashish oil into Russia, telling a judge that she had done so “inadvertently” while asking the court for mercy.

The move is not expected to end her trial in Khimki, Russia, anytime soon. Even with a guilty plea in Russian criminal courts, the judge will continue to read the full case file into the record, and it could still go on for weeks or months.

Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on Feb. 17, told the court that she packed vape cartridges accidentally and did not intend to break Russian law.

“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Griner told the judge in English, which was then translated into Russian for the court.

The next court hearing was scheduled for July 14. Griner, who asked the judge for “time to prepare” her testimony, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale transportation of drugs.

“We of course hope for the leniency of the court,” her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, told reporters outside the court. “Considering all the circumstances of the case, taking into account the personality of our client, we believe that the admission of guilt should certainly be taken into account.”

The State Department issued a statement Thursday saying it continues to work for Griner’s release. Griner’s legal team said in a statement that they expect the trial to end around the beginning of August, however her detention has been authorized through Dec. 20.

Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told reporters after the hearing that she spoke to Griner in the courtroom and shared a letter from President Joe Biden.

“She’s eating well, she’s able to read books and under the circumstances she’s doing well,” Rood said of Griner, 31.

“I would like again to emphasize the commitment of the U.S. government at the very highest level to bring home safely Ms. Griner and all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained as well as the commitment of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to care for and protect the interests of all U.S. citizens detained or imprisoned in Russia.”

Before Thursday’s hearing, Russian police escorted Griner, handcuffed and clad in a bright red T-shirt and sweatpants, into the courtroom past a crowd of journalists. She also held a photo of her wife, Cherelle.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Griner’s guilty plea “will have no impact on any of the negotiations” involving her case.

Sources said the guilty plea to charges of drug possession and smuggling was a strategy to help facilitate a prisoner swap that could bring Griner home, and it also was a recognition that there was no way she was going to be acquitted.

U.S. officials and Russia experts have described the trial, which was in its second day, as “theater,” with a guilty verdict seen as a foregone conclusion.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned Thursday that “attempts by the American side to make noise in public … don’t help the practical settlement of issues.”

The White House said Biden called Griner’s wife on Wednesday to assure her that he’s doing all he can to obtain the athlete’s release as soon as possible. They spoke after Biden read a letter from Griner in which she said she feared she’d never return home.

There is no timetable for the length of the trial, but the real resolution to Griner’s case is expected to be a deal that brings one or more Russians currently in U.S. custody back to Russia in exchange for the release of Griner and possibly another American, Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since December 2018.

Russia has sought the release of an arms dealer named Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States for supporting terrorism. But sources have said there are voices in the Biden administration who have argued against releasing Bout, who is known by the nickname “the Merchant of Death.”

Experts have said any deal to release Griner would almost certainly require an admission of guilt by the American star, regardless of the facts. A source familiar with the strategy said that by pleading guilty, Griner gets that out of the way. And while it could complicate public reaction to her case, one source said the thought was to just get her home however possible and deal with the fallout when she returns.

Ryabkov noted that until Griner’s trial is over, “there are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps.”

He warned that U.S. criticism, including a description of Griner as wrongfully detained and dismissive comments about the Russian judicial system, “makes it difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges.”

“The persistence with which the U.S. administration … describes those who were handed prison sentences for serious criminal articles and those who are awaiting the end of investigation and court verdicts as ‘wrongfully detained’ reflects Washington’s refusal to have a sober view of the outside world,” Ryabkov said.

The trial of the Phoenix Mercury star and two-time Olympic gold medalist was adjourned after its start last week because two scheduled witnesses did not appear. Such delays are routine in Russian courts.

The WNBA and the WNBA players’ union said in statements that they stand by Griner.

“You can’t navigate it or even understand it like our own legal system,” said WNBAPA Executive Director Terri Jackson, who noted the 99% conviction rate in Russian courts. “What we do know is that the U.S. State Department determined that Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained for a reason and we’ll leave it at that.”

Said WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert: “[Griner] has the wholehearted and unconditional support of the entire WNBA and NBA family, who eagerly await her safe return, and the league will recognize BG as an honorary starter at this weekend’s WNBA All-Star Game.”

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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