(Khimki) American basketball player Brittney Griner, tried and detained in Russia, pleaded guilty on Thursday to drug smuggling in a case closely followed by Washington amid heightened tensions with Moscow.
“I wish to plead guilty to all charges […] But I did not intend to violate Russian law, “said the player in a court in Khimki, a suburb of Moscow, according to an AFP journalist.
The trial of Griner, imprisoned in Russia since February after being arrested for possession of cannabis-based vaping liquid, is being closely watched by US President Joe Biden, who has made her release a “priority”.
This affair is part of a context of strong bilateral tensions linked to the conflict in Ukraine, many observers suspecting Russia of using this case for a future exchange of prisoners with the United States.
Before the start of the second trial hearing on Thursday, Russian diplomacy had denounced the “public hype” of American leaders around his case, believing that it “parasited” the case.
“What can help […]it is the consideration by the American side of signals that it receives from Russia”, underlined the Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Ryabkov.
On Wednesday, the White House had assured that releasing Brittney Griner was a “priority” for the American president, who read a poignant letter from the sportswoman and spoke with his wife.
Before that, the highest authorities in Washington had said that Russia was “unfairly” holding the 2.03-meter standout.
Letter to Biden
The Phoenix Mercury player was arrested in February when she arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in possession, according to the prosecution, of vaporizers and a cannabis-based liquid.
“I was in a hurry while packing and the cartridges accidentally ended up in my bag,” said the player, who will be questioned by the court at the next hearing on July 14, on Thursday.
Griner, who faces up to 10 years in prison, arrived at the hearing on Thursday handcuffed and escorted by several officers, wearing a red t-shirt and sweatpants.
At the time of her arrest, she was traveling to Russia to play there during the American offseason, a common practice for WNBA basketball players who often make a much better living abroad than at home.
In view of Russian case law in similar cases, this 31-year-old woman can expect a heavy sentence, to be served in a Russian penal colony.
Detained in a Russian prison, the basketball player wrote a letter to Joe Biden symbolically deposited at the White House on Monday, the day of the independence day of the United States, imploring the president not to “forget it”.
“Please don’t forget me and the other American detainees,” Brittney Griner wrote, saying she was “terrified to be here forever.”
With observers already anticipating an upcoming prisoner swap between Griner and a Russian detained in the United States, Mr. Ryabkov called on Thursday to wait until the end of the trial.
“It is clear that all legal proceedings are not over with us. As long as it is not done, we cannot talk about the rest, ”said the diplomat.
On Wednesday, Joe Biden called Cherelle Griner, the basketball player’s wife, to “reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as quickly as possible,” according to the White House.
Americans and Russians accuse each other of detaining their respective nationals for political purposes. Several prisoner exchanges have taken place in the past.
In April, former US Marine Trevor Reed, sentenced to nine years in prison in Russia for violence he denied, was exchanged for a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, imprisoned in the United States since 2010 for drug trafficking .
Other exchanges of this type would be the subject of talks.
Among the most mentioned names, those of Paul Whelan, an American sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage and who claims his innocence, and the famous Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout, arrested in Thailand in 2008 and who is serving a sentence of 25 years in prison in the United States.