American basketball star Brittney Griner could face up to ten years in prison after pleading guilty to drug possession in a Russian court.
Griner was detained in Moscow since February after police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
The US government is now under increasing pressure to do more to secure her freedom afterwards she was “wrongfully detained”.
Who is Brittney Griner?
A two-time Olympic gold medalist, Griner is one of the highest-paid players in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and has been hailed for her shooting ability.
The 31-year-old, who is 6-foot-9, plays for the Phoenix Mercury based in Phoenix, Arizona.
The Texas-born athlete is married to Cherelle, whom she met at university and calls her her “best friend” and “the love of my life”.
Griner was called an “American hero” by fellow WNBA star Nneka Ogwumike following the allegations against her.
What is she accused of?
Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February this year when he was returning to play basketball in Russia.
Later, she was accused of deliberately importing narcotics into the country pleaded guilty to drug possession and smuggling July 7, the second day of her trial.
But the athlete said she had no intention of committing a crime and acted “unintentionally” after hastily packing for a trip to Moscow.
She told the court last week: “I would like to plead guilty, your honour. But there was no intention. I didn’t want to break the law.”
Now the lawyers hope that the athlete will receive the most lenient sentence.
Why did she stay in Russia?
Griner was granted remand until December 20, raising concerns that the trial could drag on for months.
A senior Russian diplomat said that no action can be taken until the trial is over.
She was dubbed a “political pawn” amid speculation in the Russian media that she could be swapped with Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death.”
The Kremlin has long called for the release of Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States for conspiring to kill American citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
It has also been suggested that Griner could be traded along with other US citizens believed to have been “wrongly detained” by Moscow, including former Marine Paul Whelan.
Whelan was jailed for 16 years on espionage charges revealed as a “stand-in” for Washington.
What is the White House doing to help?
Elizabeth Rudd, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Moscow, said she spoke with Griner, who “eats well, can read books” and is “doing well” under the circumstances.
President Joe Biden called Griner’s wife Wednesday to assure her he was doing everything he could to press for her release.
The phone call came after Mr Biden received a letter from the basketball pro expressing concern that she would never return home.
She wrote: “…As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey or any achievements, I fear I may stay here forever .
“On the 4th of July, our family usually honors those who fought for our freedom, including my father, who is a veteran of the Vietnam War.
“It pains me to think about how I usually celebrate this day, because this year freedom means something completely different to me.”
Ms. Rudd told reporters: “I would like to reiterate the commitment of the US government at the highest level to the safe return of Ms. Griner and all illegally detained US citizens, and the commitment of the US Embassy in Moscow to care for and protect the interests of all US citizens detained or imprisoned in of Russia”.
What does Russia say?
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov previously warned the White House that “the American side’s attempts to raise public noise… do not contribute to a practical solution to the issues.”
Criticism from the U.S., including the description that Griner was “wrongfully detained,” makes it “difficult to engage in a detailed discussion of any potential exchanges,” he said.
Asked about the possibility of an exchange of Griner for a Russian prisoner in the US, Mr. Rabkov said: “There is no formal or procedural basis to talk about any further steps” before the trial is over.
The case is taking place against the background of constant tension between Moscow and Washington Vladimir Putininvasion of Ukraine.