Russia: US basketball star appears in court over drug charges

US basketball star Brittney Griner is set to go on trial in a Moscow-area court. Credit: AP

American basketball star Brittney Griner has gone on trial in Russia after being arrested for cannabis possession at an airport in Moscow.

The basketball player was detained four and a half months ago for allegedly carrying vape canisters filled with cannabis oil.

Ms Griner, who is a three-time WNBA league champion and seven-time All-Star, was escorted into a Moscow court in handcuffs as she prepares to stand trial.

The two-time US Olympic gold medallist could face up to ten years in prison if convicted of large-scale transportation of drugs.

In Russia, fewer than one-percent of defendants in criminal cases are acquitted and acquittals can be overturned.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing. Credit: AP

At a closed-door preliminary hearing, Ms Griner’s detention was extended for another six months.

The athlete’s detention and trial come at an extraordinarily low point in Moscow-Washington relations.

Griner was arrested less than a week before Russia sent troops into Ukraine, which aggravated already high tensions between the two countries.

The invasion led to sweeping sanctions imposed by the United States, and Russia denounced the US for sending weapons to Ukraine.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied politics played a role in Griner's detention and prosecution.

He said: "The facts are that the famous athlete was detained in possession of prohibited medication containing narcotic substances.

"In view of what I've said, it can’t be politically motivated."

The State Department has employed its top negotiator after it was deemed she was wrongfully detained.

Griner’s wife, Cherelle, has urged President Joe Biden to secure her release, calling her “a political pawn.”

“It was good to see her in some of those images, but it’s tough. Every time’s a reminder that their teammate, their friend, is wrongfully imprisoned in another country,” Phoenix Mercury coach Vanessa Nygaard said Monday.

The coach said she hoped Biden would "take the steps to ensure she comes home.”

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Griner’s supporters have encouraged a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought home Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.

Russian news media has repeatedly raised speculation she could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence on conviction of conspiracy to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.

Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the wide discrepancy between Griner’s case - which involves alleged possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil - and Bout’s global dealings in deadly weapons could make such a swap unpalatable to the US.

Others have suggested she could be traded in tandem with Paul Whelan, a former Marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction that the United States has repeatedly described as a setup.