U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty in a Russian court Thursday to drug charges but said she did not intend to break the law.
Ms. Griner entered the plea ahead of her trial on charges she brought vape cartridges with oil derived from cannabis to a Moscow airport in February.
“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” she said, according to a Reuters report from the courtroom.
Ms. Griner, 31, said she did not intend to carry the cartridges in her luggage and packed in a hurry. Her next hearing is scheduled for July 14.
Ms. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and standout for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
She played in Russia during the off-season in America but was swept into the fraught diplomatic situation around Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
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The Kremlin insisted that Ms. Griner was lawfully detained and said she can appeal the court’s procedures and look for clemency on the charges, which carry a maximum penalty of 10 years.
Mr. Putin could use Ms. Griner as a bargaining chip to secure the release of Russian prisoners.
Media reports have theorized the Russians would want to spring Viktor Bout — a notorious arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death” who is serving a 25-year sentence — in a prisoner swap with the U.S.
The situation is placing immense pressure on Mr. Biden, who spoke to Ms. Griner’s wife this week and pledged to try and secure her release.
Ms. Griner on July 4 made a direct plea to Mr. Biden, who recently secured the release of another American — Trevor Reed — from Russia, to use his presidential powers to help her and other detainees.
“Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore,” her letter said. “I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”
The family of Paul Whelan, another U.S. national detained in Russia, urged Mr. Biden to fight just as hard for his release alongside Ms. Griner.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said U.S. Embassy officials attended the court proceedings and gave her a letter from Mr. Biden.
“We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” he tweeted.