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WNBA star Brittney Griner begins trial in Moscow over drug charges

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Brittney Griner, the WNBA star who's been detained in Russia for more than four months on drug smuggling charges, began her trial in Moscow yesterday. Griner faces a possible sentence of up to 10 years in prison. NPR's Charles Maynes was at the courthouse, and he joins us now. Charles, welcome.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

BLOCK: What did we learn from day one of the trial?

MAYNES: Well, we learned some specifics about the charges against Griner, which we really haven't known in full since she was detained at a Moscow airport last February. The prosecution alleged that customs agents found two vape cartridges that contained just over two-thirds of a gram of hash oil in Griner's backpack and suitcase. They note that it was for personal use but that Griner had tried to bring prohibited substances across the border into Russia. And the prosecution called two of the customs officials who supposedly inspected Griner as witnesses to testify to that fact.

BLOCK: This week, Charles, we saw video of Brittney Griner being led into the courtroom in handcuffs. It's quite striking to see her. She's been detained for so long.

MAYNES: Yeah. So we saw her earlier this week at a preliminary hearing surrounded by four guards and a guard dog. Once again, there was heavy security. She was handcuffed on Friday, dressed in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, before she disappeared into the courtroom. But, you know, officials from the U.S. Embassy were allowed to attend the hearing. And the chief of mission, Elizabeth Rood, described her interactions with Griner afterward.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH ROOD: I did have the opportunity to speak with Ms. Griner in the courtroom. She is doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances. And she asked me to convey that she is in good spirits and is keeping up the faith.

BLOCK: Now, Charles, the U.S. government has said it is trying to help Brittney Griner, but I know her wife has complained that the government is not doing enough for her case. What do we know about what the government is doing and what sort of negotiations might be going on?

MAYNES: Yeah, of course. You know, Griner's detention has unfolded against this conflict in Ukraine and really a cratering of what were already bad U.S.-Russian relations. The U.S. clearly thinks that's played a role in the charges against Griner. They declared her wrongfully detained in May. The case is now being overseen by the U.S. envoy for hostage affairs. You know, and amid all this intense public interest in seeing Griner freed, White House officials clearly want everyone to know they get the message. You know, that includes National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who was asked about Griner by my colleague Tamara Keith at the NATO summit in Madrid earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE SULLIVAN: We are actively working to find a resolution to this case and will continue to do so without rest until we get Brittney safely home.

BLOCK: Now, along with Griner's WNBA career, she's been playing for a long time in Russia. What is the Russian reaction to this trial?

MAYNES: Yeah. She has been playing there since 2014. And so she's well-known to basketball fans. Particularly, her team UMMC in Ekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains has won the championship repeatedly with her on the squad. But the case isn't getting quite the same level of attention as in the U.S., at least not yet, and maybe for this reason. You know, the Kremlin rejects the idea that Griner is a hostage. They say this isn't even about politics or the U.S. The Kremlin argues this is just really a run-of-the-mill case involving a foreigner, in this case, a well-known American who allegedly tried to bring banned substances into Russia and is paying the penalty. At least that's the government line.

BLOCK: And what happens next with this case?

MAYNES: Well, the next hearing is July 7. That's next Thursday. And it may take several rounds of hearings before Griner's defense gets to make its case. So it's going to take some time. Meanwhile, you know, keep in mind that acquittals here are notoriously hard to come by, maybe in part for that reason. There's a lot of talk both in Washington and Moscow about a possible prisoner swap for Griner, and not least because the Biden administration just did one. You know, they traded for a Marine, Trevor Reed, who the U.S. said was also unjustly detained in a Russian prison. You know, Reed's now safely at home, and Griner's family and supporters want Biden basically to do the same thing again. You know, when, how, if that happens are all good questions with, you know, no satisfying answers for now.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAT POWER SONG, "NEW YORK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Charles Maynes