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It’s been more than four months since Brittney Griner, the two-time Olympic champion and Phoenix Mercury star, was detained at a Russian airport and held on charges of possessing cannabis oil while returning to play for a Russian team.
Since February, she has been confined in a prison in Khimki Oblast, a Moscow suburb, writing letters to fellow WNBA athletes and keeping in touch with her wife, Cherelle Griner, through her lawyer.
Her trial started Friday. She is charged with the smuggling of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances, punishable in Russia by a sentence of six to 10 years.
Coverage of Griner’s case in Russian media looks different from what you have seen in U.S. media outlets.
The Republic parsed through Russian search engines like Yandex and Lenta.ru and came up with some takeaways on how the writers and readers are conceiving of an American athlete, trapped thousands of miles away from her home and team.
Airport video released: Brittney Griner detained in Russia on drug charges
Russian media swears Brittney Griner’s case is not political
That first line in the image above in bold reads that the Kremlin, the home of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration, “does not count the arrest of American basketballer Griner as politically motivated.”
The website говорит москва, or “Moscow Speaks,” quoting Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, has continued to deny Griner’s arrest had any political ends. She simply broke the law, he said, and is being tried in accordance with Russian penal codes.
“The facts say,” Peskov said. “That a famous athlete was found with forbidden objects, which contained within them narcotic substances.”
Peskov told Russian state-owned news agency TASS that Griner thus could not be referred to as a hostage.
"We cannot call her that," he said. "Why must we call her a hostage?"
Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko said on the trial’s first day that Griner was detained with 0.56 grams of hashish oil, when massed out in dried form. This constituted “a significant amount,” according to BFM.ru, a premiere business radio station in Russia. Two witnesses were called by the prosecution on Friday, the outlet reported. Both operated the airport security checkpoint where Griner was detained in February.
Assertions that the case is not politically motivated have been disputed by experts and operatives in the U.S. The athlete's agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, tweeted June 27 that "the U.S. Government has determined that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained and being used as a political pawn."
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on June 26 called her release from Russian detention "an absolute priority" in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union."
The State Department officially designated Griner as "wrongfully detained" back in May. Experts are speculating Putin is dangling her in a purported prisoner swap for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the "Merchant of Death."
Russian media talk openly of prisoner swap for 'businessman' Viktor Bout
Aggregated news stories within the Yandex search engine tell the story of Russian authorities eager to bring Bout back from an American prison. Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov has confirmed Bout's release is a "very high priority" for his government, according to Газета.ru — in English, the Gazette.
Even back in early May, when Griner's pretrial detention period was extended into July, news outlets such as Sportkp.ru were suggesting that the still-not-convicted Griner could eventually be swapped for Bout, citing previous media releases from state officials.
On May 13, TASS reported that "negotiations were already underway to exchange Bout for Griner."
At that same time, a spokesperson from the U.S. declined to discuss any conversations between the State Department and Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Biden administration has not commented on a Bout-for-Griner swap. But Russian attitudes give the impression that the country's leaders have been looking for an opportunity like this one for a long time.
Russians know how important Griner's release is to American authorities — and to the world. But to the state, Griner is already guilty
Unlike in the U.S., Russian defendants are not entitled to the presumption of innocence. More than 99% of trials in Russia end with convictions, and even an acquittal can be reversed at the government's discretion, according to the Associated Press.
So Brittney Griner stands very little chance of being released without a conviction.
Experts in Russian law have said that it is actually in Griner's best interest to plead guilty, owing to the long odds of an acquittal and the likelihood that a not guilty plea followed by a robust defense likely would result in her being placed under harsher conditions during the trial phase.
"It's a foregone conclusion and the trial is to uphold the state and confirm the power of the state," William Pomeranz, acting director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, told ESPN's T.J. Quinn on June 30. "Justice is not the immediate issue."
Elizabeth Rood, an American diplomat and a leader at the U.S. embassy in Russia, attended the first day of the trial. She said in its aftermath that the U.S. government is "working hard so that basketball player Brittney Griner could come home," according to TASS.
In a BFM.ru story, Rood is quoted attesting to the "millions of Americans" that are "worried about the well-being of citizens that are in prisons outside of the United States." It was a rare admission of an outlet acknowledging Griner's popularity in her home country and the global attention her case has drawn.
Russian federal sports channel MatchTV focused a story on the pressure Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, is placing on the Biden administration. The outlet quoted Cherelle Griner's words on CNN and noted the lack of confidence she had in the U.S. government to bring her wife back home.
Back home without Griner
Without their superstar, the Phoenix Mercury are right in the thick of it in the battle to make the postseason, clinging to the league’s eighth and final playoff spot. Since a June 23 loss to the Minnesota Lynx, the Mercury have won three straight, all by double digits.
Call to action: Stanton resolution pushing to free Brittney Griner passes House
The WNBA has banded together to call for her return. Griner’s initials and jersey number are featured prominently on the sideline of all 12 of the league’s courts. On July 6, the Mercury will host a Bring BG Home rally attended by U.S. Rep. and former Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, D-Ariz.
Another inflection point for a city, hoping impatiently for the return of one of its best.
Gregory Svirnovskiy is fluent in Russian. Reach him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Here's how Mercury star Brittney Griner's trial is playing in Russia