MOSCOW, Russia — Jailed American basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges during her trial in Russia Thursday, according to multiple reports. The surprise guilty plea on drug possession and smuggling charges comes after more than five months in a Moscow jail cell.
The reports quoted Griner as pleading guilty to the charges at Thursday’s court hearing. They said that speaking through an interpreter, Griner said she had acted unintentionally because she was packing in haste.
Griner is a Houston native who played collegiately at Baylor, leading them to a National Championship in 2012. She plays professionally for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA.
Griner was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after vape canisters with cannabis oil allegedly were found in her luggage. She faces up to 10 years in prison.
Before Thursday’s hearing, Russian police escorted Griner, handcuffed and clad in a bright red T-shirt and sports trousers, into the courtroom past a crowd of journalists.
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 that she read.
“She’s eating well, she’s able to read books and under the circumstances she’s doing well,” Rood said of Griner.
“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,” Rood said.
The State Department has designated her as wrongfully detained, moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.
However, Washington hasn’t made public its strategy in the case and the U.S. may have little leverage with Moscow because of strong animosity due to Russia's military actions in Ukraine.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov bristled at the U.S. description of Briner as “wrongfully detained” and warned that “attempts by the American side to make noise in public ... don’t help the practical settlement of issues.”
Griner’s trial began last week amid a growing chorus of calls for Washington to do more to secure her release nearly five months after her arrest.
The White House said President Joe 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.
Although Griner's supporters initially kept a low profile, calls for the United States to take action spiked after the trial's first day.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, one of America's most prominent Black activists, this week called for Biden to arrange a prayer meeting with Griner, saying, "Four months is too long for this to have gone on, and I hope the President acts on her pleas to come home.”
An organization called Win With Black Women sent Biden a letter saying Secretary of State Antony Blinken “has called Cherelle Griner, Brittney’s wife, assuring her and stating publicly that Brittney’s safe return was a matter of personal priority; however, we are concerned that the rhetoric does not appear to align with the actions taken to date. We urge you to make a deal to get Brittney back home swiftly.”
Russian news media have repeatedly speculated that Griner could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. on conviction of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the wide discrepancy between Griner’s alleged offense and Bout’s global dealings in deadly weapons could make such a swap unpalatable to Washington.
Others have suggested that she could be traded along with Paul Whelan, a former Marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence in Russia on an espionage conviction that the U.S. has repeatedly described as a setup.
Russia has shown no signs of backing off.
“This is a serious offense, confirmed by indisputable evidence ... Attempts to present the case as if the American was detained illegally do not hold up," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexei Zaitsev said Wednesday.
“The law has been violated, and arguments about the innocent nature of Griner’s addiction, which, by the way, is punishable in some U.S. states, are inappropriate in this case,” he said.
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.” U.S. criticism, including a description of Griner as wrongfully detained and comments about the Russian judicial system, “makes it difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges,” he said.
Ryabkov noted that until Griner's trial is over “there are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps.”