Russian drugs charge: Brittney Griner pleads guilty

US basketball player Brittney Griner has pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Russian court but has denied deliberately breaking the law.

The Olympic gold medallist was detained in February at an airport near Moscow when cannabis oil vape cartridges were allegedly found in her luggage.

“I was in a rush packing and the cartridges accidentally ended up in my bag,” she told the court in Khimki.

Her trial began last week on charges that could mean 10 years in jail.

Griner’s wife earlier called on President Joe Biden to do “whatever is necessary” to secure her release. Mr Biden told Cherelle Griner he was working to have her freed as soon as possible.

The 31-year-old basketball star, who is accused of possessing and smuggling drugs, had already sent the president a letter saying she was “terrified [she] might be here forever”.

Russian government officials have warned the US not to “make noise in public about the case”. “The hype and working on the public, with all the love for this genre among modern politicians, currently only disturbs” the court process, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said.

“I’d like to plead guilty, your honour. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” Brittney Griner told the court in English. In handcuffs and wearing a red T-shirt and trousers, she said she would like to give her testimony later and needed time to prepare. The trial was then adjourned for a week.

Griner is one of the most successful players in the women’s professional league in the US, with WNBA team Phoenix Mercury. She has won WNBA and Euroleague titles as well as two Olympic golds. She had travelled to Russia to play club basketball during the off-season and has featured in EuroLeague team UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2014.

Cannabis oil is illegal in Russia, but her high-profile arrest at Sheremetyevo airport near Moscow came a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Relations between the US and Russia are in a parlous state and it took several months before the Biden administration made her case a priority. A US National Security Council spokeswoman said on Thursday she was wrongfully detained by Russia under “intolerable circumstances”.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that US embassy officials had attended Thursday’s hearing and had handed Griner a letter from President Biden: “We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones.”

Whelan is serving a 16-year jail term on spying charges rejected by his family as nonsense.

Russia has denied that the player’s detention is connected to the icy diplomatic relations with the US, but John Garamendi, a member of the US Congress, warned last month that the war could exacerbate the issue. “We don’t want Ms Griner to become a pawn in the political battle that’s being waged throughout the world right now.”

There has been speculation that even if Brittney Griner is given a jail term Russia may be prepared to exchange her or Paul Whelan for a high-profile Russian prisoner in a US jail, such as arms dealer Viktor Bout. Dubbed “Merchant of Death”, Bout was jailed for 25 years after he was caught in a US sting operation in Thailand.

Cherelle Griner earlier told a rally organised by her wife’s Phoenix Mercury team: “I’m frustrated that 140 days have passed since my wife has been able to speak to me, to our family and to our friends. I’m frustrated that my wife is not going to get justice.”

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