In a court outside Moscow on Thursday, WNBA superstar Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug-smuggling charges widely thought to be politically motivated. She faces up to ten years in prison — though the Biden administration is working to secure her release, possibly as part of a prisoner swap.
In an appearance on Thursday detailed by the state news agency RIA Novosti, Griner told the court she hadn’t intended to commit a crime when she brought two cartridges of hashish oil into Russia in February but that she had merely packed in a hurry. For years, Griner has played for a team in central Russia to supplement her income in the WNBA.
Griner’s trial, which began several days ago, is all but predetermined in the state’s favor; the majority of cases in Russia that are not pleaded out end in a guilty verdict. Her next hearing is scheduled for July 14.
A guilty plea may help set the wheels in motion for a potential prisoner exchange. (Speculation in Russia has focused on Viktor Bout, an arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death.) Russian authorities have previously stated there will be no prisoner swap until a verdict is handed down. On Wednesday, the White House announced that President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris had spoken with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, to assure her that the administration is working to bring Griner home. The call came after Griner asked for help in a handwritten letter delivered to the White House on July 4. In it, she wrote that she was “terrified I might be here forever.”
Griner’s arrest came just before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was designated by the U.S. State Department as a wrongful detention, which opened up more diplomatic avenues to win her freedom. Her case is being handled by the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, who operates as the government’s top hostage negotiator. But there are few signs that Russia intends to back down amid deteriorated relations with Washington. “This is a serious offense, confirmed by indisputable evidence,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexei Zaitsev said this week. “Attempts to present the case as if the American was detained illegally do not hold up.”