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US basketball star Brittney Griner appears in Russian court

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 27, 2022. More than four months after she was arrested at a Moscow airport for cannabis possession, American basketball star Brittney Griner is to appear in court Monday for a preliminary hearing ahead of her trial. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, Monday, June 27, 2022. More than four months after she was arrested at a Moscow airport for cannabis possession, American basketball star Brittney Griner is to appear in court Monday for a preliminary hearing ahead of her trial. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

US basketball star Brittney Griner has been ordered to stand trial on Friday by a court near Moscow on cannabis possession charges, four months after her arrest at an airport while returning to play for a Russian team.

The Phoenix Mercury star and two-time US Olympic gold medallist also was ordered to remain in custody for the duration of her criminal trial.

She could face 10 years in prison if convicted on charges of large-scale transportation of drugs. Fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and acquittals can be overturned.

Russia Griner
Brittney Griner is escorted to the courtroom (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

At Monday’s closed-door preliminary hearing at the court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, Griner’s detention was extended for another six months.

Photos obtained by the Associated Press showed the 31-year-old in handcuffs and looking straight ahead, unlike a previous court appearance where she kept her head down and covered with a hood.

Her detention and trial come at a low point in Moscow-Washington relations. She was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport less than a week before Russia sent troops into Ukraine, which aggravated already-high tensions with sweeping sanctions by the US and Russia’s denunciation of US weapon supplies to Ukraine.

Amid the tensions, Griner’s supporters had taken a low profile in hopes of a quiet resolution, until May, when the State Department reclassified her as wrongfully detained and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs — effectively the US government’s chief negotiator.

Griner’s wife Cherelle urged President Joe Biden in May to secure her release, calling her “a political pawn”.

Her supporters have encouraged a prisoner swap like one in April that brought home marines veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.

Paula Reed, mother of Trevor Reed, ahead of his release (Alamy/PA)

Russian news media have repeatedly raised speculation that she could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death”, who is serving a 25-year sentence on conviction of conspiracy to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organisation.

Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years, but the discrepancy between Griner’s case — she was allegedly found in possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil — and Bout’s global dealings in deadly weapons could make such a swap unpalatable to the US.

Others have suggested she could be traded in tandem with Paul Whelan, a former marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction that the US has repeatedly described as a set-up.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken, asked on Sunday whether a joint swap of Griner and Mr Whelan for Bout was being considered, sidestepped the question.

“As a general proposition… I have got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,” he said, but added: “I can’t comment in any detail on what we’re doing, except to say this is an absolute priority.”

Any swap would apparently require Griner to first be convicted and sentenced, then apply for a presidential pardon, said Maria Yarmush, a lawyer specialising in international civil affairs.