Brittney Griner testifies in Russian court as US works to secure her release
The WNBA star has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17.
Brittney Griner testified on Wednesday in a Russian court more than five months after she was detained in the country, saying she did not mean to violate Russian law when bringing vape cartridges into the country.
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.
Griner 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.
She testified that she has permission to use medical cannabis and used a certificate to buy it in the U.S. Earlier this 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.
The American basketball star said she was pulled aside after inspectors at the airport found the vape cartridges in her luggage and that when she was detained, she was not offered an explanation of her rights or access to an attorney. Griner said that while there was a translator present, she was not offered a complete translation and even tried to use her phone to translate.
After a brief cross-examination by the prosecution Wednesday, the case wrapped up for the day. The trial will resume on Aug. 2.
In a sharp reversal, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced later on Wednesday 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. "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."
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. Department of State classified Griner's case on May 3 as "wrongfully detained."
Calls to free Griner and Whelan escalated following the April release of U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed, who was freed from a Russian prison as part of a prisoner exchange.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Tuesday afternoon that officials were with Griner in court on Tuesday, and confirmed that she was "doing OK," and the department has "routinely conveyed those discussions" to Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner.
"I would say that we have made the case of Brittney Griner, we have made the case of Paul Whelan, an absolute priority and we are working actively, quietly, behind the scenes to do everything we can to see that their wrongful detentions come to an end as quickly as possible," Price said.
Price added that the administration won't be satisfied until Griner is back with her family.
"We don't look at this in terms of satisfaction. We look at this through the lens of doing everything we possibly can to see to it that these individuals are reunited with their families as quickly as we can," Price said.
Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in court earlier this 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 earlier this month that her "guilty" plea was recommended by her Russian attorneys.
"Brittney sets an example of being brave. She decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people," the lawyers said in the statement. "Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and BG's personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence."
The WNBA star briefly spoke to ABC News during a break in Tuesday's proceedings at a courthouse in the Moscow suburb of Khimki. When asked whether she has any complaints, she said: "No, no complaints. Just waiting patiently."
She also shared with ABC News a message for her wife, Cherelle, who recently graduated from law school.
"Good luck on the bar exam," Griner said.
Griner's legal team continued to present evidence on Tuesday and called another witness to testify as pressure mounts on the United States to negotiate her release.
A Russian narcologist, Dr. Mikhail Tetyushkin, testified on Tuesday that cannabis is often used by professional athletes to treat sports injuries because of its therapeutic properties, including analgesic and anti-inflammatory. However, with constant use, it may impair motor coordination and reaction time, which is why athletes should not take it permanently, according to Tetyushkin. He also noted that there are no international standards to differentiate medical cannabis from a drug.
Since Griner's trial began on July 1, several Russian individuals have testified in court as character witnesses about their experience with the Phoenix Mercury center, who also played in the WNBA offseason for UMMC, a Russian basketball club in the city of Yekaterinburg. Witnesses include Maxim Ryabkov, the director of UMMC; team doctor Anatoly Galabin, who said that Griner never tested positive for doping while playing for the team, and Evgenia Belyakova, one of Griner's Russian teammates, who said that Griner was the leader of the team.
ABC News' Morgan Winsor, Shannon Crawford, Henderson Hewes and Joseph Simonetti contributed to this report.