WNBA star Brittney Griner is set to appear in court Tuesday in Russia, where she has been detained for more than five months, as the United States floats a proposal to secure her release.
Griner, a 31-year-old Houston native who plays professional basketball for the Phoenix Mercury, was detained on Feb. 17 at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Khimki as she returned to Russia to play during the WNBA’s offseason after she was accused of having vape cartridges containing hashish oil, which is illegal in the country. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison and also has a right to an appeal.
In a sharp reversal, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced last week that he will hold a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “in the coming days” to discuss securing the freedom of Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since late 2018.
“[They] have been wrongly detained and must be allowed to come home,” Blinken told reporters on Wednesday. “We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope [to] move us toward a resolution.”
Blinken told reporters on Friday that he had a “frank and direct conversation” with Lavrov about a U.S. proposal to exchange convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout in return for Griner and Whelan’s freedom.
“I pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we put forth on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner,” Blinken said.
“I’m not going to characterize his responses and I can’t give you an assessment of whether I think things are more or less likely, but it was important that [he] hear directly from me on that,” he added.
At a press conference in Moscow on Thursday, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Vladimirovna Zakharova confirmed that “the issue of mutual exchange of Russian and American citizens, staying in places of detention on the territory of the two countries, was discussed at one time by the presidents of Russia and the United States,” but “a concrete result has not yet been achieved.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began one week after Griner was detained, and some officials have expressed concern that Americans jailed in Russia could be used as leverage in the ongoing conflict.
The U.S. State Department classified Griner’s case on May 3 as “wrongfully detained.”
Calls to free Griner and Whelan escalated following the May release of U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed, who was freed from a Russian prison as part of a prisoner exchange.
Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in court last month, saying that the vape cartridges containing hashish oil were in her luggage mistakenly and that she had no “intention” of breaking Russian law.
Her legal team told ABC News in a statement last month that her “guilty” plea was recommended by her Russian attorneys.
Griner, who last appeared in court on July 27, testified that she did not mean to violate Russian law when bringing vape cartridges into the country.
She testified that she has permission to use medical cannabis and used a certificate to buy it in the U.S. Last month, one of Griner’s attorneys presented a letter from an American doctor in court, giving her permission to use cannabis to reduce chronic pain.
Griner also said she did not mean to leave the cartridges in her bag, but that she was in a hurry and was stressed after recovering from COVID-19 that month. The WNBA star said she was aware that the U.S. had warned Americans about traveling to Russia, but she didn’t want to let her team down in the playoffs.
ABC News’ Tanya Stukalova, Alexander Mallin, Benjamin Siegel and Joseph Simonetti contributed to this report.