US basketball star Griner appears in Russian court
MOSCOW (AP) - More than four months after her arrest at a Moscow airport for cannabis possession, a Russian court has set the criminal trial against US basketball star Brittney Griner to begin on July 1.
The Phoenix Mercury star has also been ordered to remain in custody for the duration of her criminal case. If convicted of large-scale drug trafficking, she faces ten years in prison. Less than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in the US, acquittals can be overturned.
On Monday, a court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki extended Griner's detention for a further six months after she appeared for a preliminary hearing behind closed doors. Photos provided to the AP showed them in handcuffs. Griner had previously been ordered to remain in custody until July 2.
Griner's imprisonment and trial mark an extraordinary low in Moscow-Washington relations. She was arrested at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport less than a week before Russia dispatched troops to Ukraine, adding to already high tensions with sweeping sanctions from the United States and Russia's denunciation of US arms sales to Ukraine.
Amid the tensions, Griner's supporters had held back on hoping for a quiet resolution until May, when the State Department deemed her wrongly detained and turned oversight of her case to the President's special envoy for hostage affairs - effectively the US government's chief negotiator .
The move has drawn additional attention to Griner's case, with supporters sponsoring a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought home Navy veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.
Russian news media have repeatedly raised speculation that she could be swapped out for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed "The Merchant of Death," who is serving a 25-year sentence on charges of conspiring to kill US citizens and supporting a terrorist organization was convicted.
Russia has been campaigning for Bout's release for years. But the discrepancy between Griner's case - she was allegedly found in possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil - and Bout's global trade in deadly weapons could make such a swap uncomfortable for the US.
Others have suggested she could be traded alongside Paul Whelan, a former Navy and Security director who is serving a 16-year sentence on a spying conviction that the United States has repeatedly called staging.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who asked on CNN on Sunday whether a joint trade between Griner and Whelan for Bout was being considered, dodged the question.
"As a general statement ... I have no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being held illegally in one way or another around the world come home," he said. But "I can't comment in detail on what we're doing other than to say that this is an absolute priority."
Any swap would appear to require Griner to first be convicted and sentenced, and then seek a presidential pardon, Maria Yarmush, a lawyer specializing in international civil affairs, told Kremlin-funded TV channel RT.
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