Basketball star Brittney Griner goes on trial in Russia over drug charges

US basketball star Brittney Griner went on trial for drug possession in a Russian court on Friday in a case her supporters fear has made her a pawn in the Kremlin’s frosty relationship with Washington.

Griner, a US citizen, faces up to 10 years in prison on the charges after police claimed to have found traces of hash oil on her vaping cartridges when she arrived in Russia to play off-season basketball in February, less than a week before President Vladimir Putin launched his full invasion of Ukraine.

The timing of her arrest combined with her stature in the sports world — she is a two-time Olympic champion, a face of the US women’s professional league and among the highest-paid players for Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg — have thrust Griner into a high-level diplomatic dispute.

In May, the US state department upgraded Griner’s case to declare she was “wrongfully detained”, indicating that it considers her arrest politically motivated as it assigned the US’s chief hostage negotiator the task of securing her release.

Since then, a broad spectrum of US sports officials, athletes and human rights groups have petitioned the White House in support of Griner.

Adam Silver, National Basketball Association commissioner, opened the men’s league’s championship series last month by calling attention to Griner’s case, saying “we are working in lockstep with the US government and outside experts on trying to expedite her release in any way we can”.

Last week, a coalition of more than 40 advocacy groups, including the NAACP and GLAAD, wrote to US president Joe Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris that Griner “continues to endure inhumane treatment [and is] deprived of contact with her family”. An agent for Griner did not respond to a question about whether her team had received a response from the White House.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Friday insisted the Griner case “cannot be politically motivated”, according to Interfax. “The facts show that the famous athlete was arrested with banned substances containing narcotics,” Peskov told reporters.

The opening of the trial, which is taking place in Moscow’s Khimki City Court, is being analysed by strategists not for the rhetoric of the prosecution and the defence but for fluctuations in perceived diplomatic leverage.

Danielle Gilbert, a professor of military and strategic studies at the US Air Force Academy, said it was unlikely Griner would be acquitted in the Russian legal system and precise arguments in the case would “likely be irrelevant”.

Russia is believed to be lobbying the US to release Viktor Bout, an arms trafficker serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation, in exchange for Americans held in Russian prisons.

It exchanged former US marine Trevor Reed for convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshchenko in April.

A court remanded Griner in pre-trial detention until December and she is set to be held behind bars for the duration of her trial.

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