US basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty Thursday to drug smuggling charges in a Russian court but denied intending to break the law in a case that has further inflamed tensions between Moscow and Washington.
The two-time Olympic gold medallist and WNBA champion, detained days before Russia sent troops to Ukraine, faces up to a decade behind bars for bringing vape cartridges with cannabis oil into the country.
The 31-year-old basketball star told a court in the town of Khimki outside Moscow that she “would like to plead guilty” to all the charges, but stressed she had “no intention” of breaking any Russian law.
“I was in a rush packing. And the cartridges accidentally ended up in my bag.”
The athlete, who is six-foot-nine inches tall, wore a red T-shirt and matching trousers. She walked into the courtroom with her tattooed arms handcuffed to a Russian guard.
Her lawyer Alexander Boykov called for “as soft a sentence as possible”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that US embassy officials attended Griner’s trial and delivered to her a letter from US President Joe Biden.
“We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” Blinken tweeted.
Griner’s lawyer Boykov said she had “appreciated” receiving the letter from Biden, who said on Wednesday that he would make bringing her home a “priority.”
Moscow hit back, saying that US “hype” over Griner would not help her case.
“The hype and working on the public, with all the love for this genre among modern politicians, currently only disturbs” the court process, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said.
“It does not just distract from the case but creates interference in the core sense of the word. Silence is needed here.”
In a call with Griner’s wife, Biden said the star was “wrongfully detained under intolerable circumstances”.
The US leader said he had written to the WBNA star, after she had sent him a hand-written letter presented to the White House on July 4, US Independence Day.
“I realise you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American detainees,” Griner wrote.
“Please do all you can to bring us home.”
But Ryabkov said letters between the two would not help the star’s fate.
“It is not correspondence of this kind that can help, but a serious perception by the American side of the signals they received from Moscow, through specialised channels,” he said.
Another member of Griner’s defence team, Maria Blagovolina, said it was her client’s decision to plead guilty.
“Brittney stressed that she committed the crime by negligence,” Blagovolina said.
“We hope that this circumstance, together with the evidence of the defense, will be taken into account by the court.”
The professional basketball player was detained in February in the days before Russia sent troops to Ukraine, with the United States and its allies imposing unprecedented sanctions on Moscow in response.
Her case has become a new sticking point in ties between the United States and Russia, with Washington putting its special envoy in charge of hostages on the case.
Griner came to Russia in February to play club basketball during the US off-season — a common path for American stars seeking additional income.
She was detained at a Moscow airport after she was found carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage.
US authorities initially kept a low profile on the case, which was not made known to the general public until March 5, but have since upped the ante.
Russian law is strict in such cases and other foreigners have recently been handed heavy sentences on drug-related charges.
Last month, a Moscow court sentenced a former US diplomat, Marc Fogel, to 14 years in prison for “large-scale” cannabis smuggling.
Russia and the United States regularly clash over the detention of each other’s citizens and sometimes exchange them in scenes reminiscent of the Cold War.
The next hearing in the case will be held on July 14.