WNBA star Brittney Griner is due to appear in court in Russia on Tuesday, where she has been held for more than five months, as the United States presents a proposal to secure her release.
Griner, a 31-year-old Houston native who plays professional basketball for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested Feb. 17 at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Khimki while returning to Russia to play in the offseason of the WNBA after being accused of having vape cartridges containing hash oil, which is illegal in the country. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison and also has the right to appeal.
In a sharp turnaround, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced last week that he would hold a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov “in the coming days” to discuss securing Griner’s freedom and former US Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since late 2018.
“[They] have been wrongfully detained and must be allowed to return home,” Blinken told reporters on Wednesday. “We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on this proposal, and I will use the conversation to follow up personally and hopefully [to] move us towards a resolution.”
Blinken told reporters on Friday he had a “frank and direct conversation” with Lavrov about a U.S. offer to trade convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for the freedom of Griner and Whelan.
“I pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial offer we made on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner,” Blinken said.
“I’m not going to characterize his responses and I can’t tell you if I think things are more or less likely, but it was important that [he] hear directly from me about it,” he added.
At a press conference in Moscow on Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Vladimirovna Zakharova confirmed that “the issue of mutual exchange of Russian and American citizens, staying in places of detention on the territory of the two countries, was discussed at some point”. by the Presidents of Russia and the United States”, but “no concrete results have yet been achieved”.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began a week after Griner’s arrest, and some officials have expressed concern that Americans imprisoned in Russia could be used as leverage in the ongoing conflict.
The US State Department classified Griner’s case on May 3 as “wrongfully detained.”
Calls to release Griner and Whelan intensified after the May release of US Navy veteran Trevor Reed, who was freed from a Russian prison as part of a prisoner exchange.
Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in court last month, saying the vape cartridges containing hash oil were mistakenly in her luggage and she had no ‘intent’ to infringe. Russian law.
His legal team told ABC News in a statement last month that his “guilty” plea was recommended by his Russian lawyers.
Griner, who last appeared in court on July 27, said she had no intention of breaking Russian law by bringing vape cartridges into the country.
She testified that she had permission to use medical cannabis and used a certificate to purchase it in the United States. Last month, one of Griner’s attorneys presented a letter from an American doctor to the court, giving him permission to use cannabis to reduce chronic pain.
Griner also said she didn’t want to leave the cartridges in her bag, but was rushed and stressed after recovering from COVID-19 that month. The WNBA star said she knew the United States warned Americans to go to Russia, but she didn’t want to let her team down in the playoffs.
ABC News’ Tanya Stukalova, Alexander Mallin, Benjamin Siegel and Joseph Simonetti contributed to this report.