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WNBA star Brittney Griner pleads guilty to drug charges in Russian court

Griner, 31, could face up to 10 years in prison on drug smuggling charges under Russian law.

American basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Moscow court Thursday, her lawyers said, as her family and friends stepped up their calls for the U.S. government to do more to free her.

Griner, 31, could face up to 10 years in prison on drug smuggling charges under Russian law. She was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage.

Griner’s lawyer, Alexander Boikov, said after the hearing that the basketball star admitted that the vape canisters were hers, but she brought them to Russia unintentionally.

Her other lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, said they hope for the leniency of the court. Griner’s next hearing will take place next Thursday.

NBC News was not in the courtroom when Griner spoke.

Her latest appearance comes after President Joe Biden sought to reassure Griner’s wife that he was working to secure her release as fast as he could. Griner penned an emotional letter to the president earlier this week, pleading with him to bring her home.

Her arrest took place just days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, and has highlighted the frayed relations between Washington and Moscow.

The Kremlin has been accused of using Griner as a political pawn while the Biden administration has said she has been “wrongfully detained.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied Griner was being held as a hostage in Russia.

Griner is a 6-foot-9 native of Houston, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a center for the Phoenix Mercury. Her trial began last week.

She entered the court on Thursday wearing glasses, a red t-shirt and red pants. She was led into the courtroom in handcuffs before being placed in a white metal cage. Griner was later joined in the courtroom by three U.S. embassy representatives and her lawyers, with no TV cameras and only a few journalists allowed in.

Griner, who plays for a Russian basketball team during the WNBA’s offseason, has made no public statements since her detention and it’s unclear what she makes of the accusations against her or what she says were the circumstances surrounding her arrest.

Since her trial started, her family, friends and colleagues have increased their calls for the U.S. to do more to bring her home.

Her team held a rally in her support in Phoenix on Wednesday while Rev. Al Sharpton urged Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday to arrange for him and a group of faith leaders to meet Griner in Russia.

The White House said Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, on Wednesday to assure her that he is working to secure Griner’s release as soon as possible. He also read her a draft of the letter he was sending Griner on Wednesday, according to the White House readout of the call.

It came after Griner said in the handwritten letter addressed to Biden earlier this week that she was terrified she could be in Russian jail forever, imploring him to do all he can to bring her home.

In May, the State Department reclassified Griner as having been “wrongfully detained” and transferred oversight of her case to the State Department presidential envoy for hostage affairs. 

U.S. officials have said they are working behind the scenes to free her.

So far, Washington has not officially commented on any possible prisoner swaps, despite speculation in Russian state media in May that Griner could be exchanged for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. NBC News wasn’t able to confirm those reports. 

There are also growing questions over whether Griner could be traded along with Paul Whelan, another American serving a 16-year sentence for espionage.

Brittney Griner
Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on July 7, 2022.Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP - Getty Images