Four months after being detained and held in Russia, Brittney Griner, the WNBA star and center for the Phoenix Mercury, will begin court proceedings on Friday, according to The Associated Press. She will remain in custody for the duration of her criminal trial.
Griner has remained in Russian custody since February after she was arrested at a Moscow airport and suspected of cannabis possession. Experts say she is likely to be convicted.
Nearly two months after Griner’s arrest, the U.S. State Department reclassified her case as wrongful detention.
Calls for her release from Russian custody have been made by many well-known names in the basketball community, including LeBron James, Monty Williams and Diana Taurasi, along with the rest of the Phoenix Mercury franchise.
Here’s what you need to know as her trial begins:
Who is Brittney Griner?
At 31, Brittney Griner is one of the most accomplished basketball players. She has won the WNBA’s All-Star award seven times, won the Olympic gold medal twice for Team USA and achieved plenty of other accolades on the court.
Besides playing for the Mercury, the 6-foot-9-inch star has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA’s offseason since 2015.
Off the court, Griner is just as celebrated by her supporters being the first openly gay athlete who signed an endorsement with Nike. Griner has also been involved in the Phoenix community through various philanthropic endeavors.
AboutBrittney Griner: Mercury star’s life as complicated as Russian detainment suggests
Most recently in the summer of 2020, she partnered up with Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns to help raise money for COVID-19 relief and for the Black Lives Matter movement.
What was Brittney Griner doing in Russia?
Like other WNBA players, Griner was in Russia to play in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League, playing on the Russian UMMC Ekaterinburg team for the past seven years.
Overseas play: Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner among several WNBA players competing in Russia
This is of course a way for U.S. athletes to play the sport and make supplemental income. For comparison, in Russia, she made as much as $1.5 million in a single year. Her base salary at the Phoenix Mercury last season was only $215,000.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Americans who were players in Russia sought to leave the country. Canceled flights and deteriorating diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. made this more and more difficult.
Why was Brittney Griner detained?
Griner was detained on Feb. 17, when authorities reportedly found cannabis vape cartridges in her carry-on luggage while she was going through an airport outside of Moscow.
Cannabis is considered a Schedule I substance, according to U.S. federal law. This means that regardless of whether your state legislature has legalized the substance, transporting it across state lines is not advisable.
Can I fly with weed vape? What to know after Brittney Griner’s arrest in Russia
When the Russian Federal Customs Service announced the arrest, it mentioned that these charges could potentially lead to a maximum of a 10-year prison sentence.
In an interview with The Arizona Republic, William Butler, a professor of law at Penn State Dickinson, described the Russian law on narcotics as a “zero tolerance policy.”
How long could Brittney Griner’s trial last?
In June, a Russian court extended Griner’s pretrial detention for the second time since she was detained in February. She was told that she would have to wait as late as July 2 for her case to be heard.
Her first court appearance is scheduled for Friday.
A spokesman for the State Department said that these extensions are part of the reason why the U.S. government has classified her arrest as wrongful.
“This case is problematic from top to bottom,” he said. “It is precisely why we have characterized Brittney Griner as an unlawful detainee. It’s precisely why we are doing everything we can to seek and to affect her prompt release from Russian detention.”
Republic reporter Lane Sainty spoke with William Pomeranz, the acting director of the Kennan Institute. Pomeranz, who has practiced law in the Russian judicial system, said he fears for Griner as her trial is set to unfold.
“I assume she’ll have a trial,” he said. “I assume she’ll be convicted. There is a 99% conviction rate in the Russian Federation.”
Unsure future: Brittney Griner likely faces a trial, but her fate in a Russian justice system is unknown
According to The Associated Press, fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and acquittals can be overturned.
Has Griner been able to communicate with loved ones in the U.S.?
A phone call was scheduled between Brittney Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner, in an attempt for them to connect on the couple’s anniversary on June 18.
According to Biden administration officials, due to an “unfortunate mistake,” the call could not be completed and had to be rescheduled. According to The Associated Press, the phone line meant to connect the two was not staffed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow that day.
‘Unacceptable’: WNBA star Brittney Griner’s wife upset that scheduled anniversary call never went through
That would have been the first time the two had spoken to one another since Brittney Griner’s arrest.
Despite that, according to The Associated Press, Griner has been able to receive emails and letters from WNBA players during her detainment. Hundreds of emails have been sent by players to an account Griner’s agent set up to allow them to communicate with her.
What is the U.S. government doing about Brittney Griner’s case?
The State Department has said it would take a more aggressive approach to have Griner released from Russian detention.
On June 24, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that called on the Russian government to release Griner. This was introduced by Rep. Greg Stanton of Arizona along with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Rep. Colin Allred of Texas.
Call to action: Stanton resolution pushing to free Brittney Griner passes House
In a written statement, Stanton said, “Not a day goes by that we aren’t thinking of Brittney and working to get her home. … We will continue to push for her release and make sure that she is not forgotten.”
Speculation has grown about whether Griner could be released in a prisoner swap deal made by the U.S. and Russia. Earlier this year, a similar exchange was made for Trevor Reed, who had been detained in Russia since 2019.
Have a question you need answered? Reach the reporter at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @raphaeldelag.