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WNBA star Brittney Griner pleads guilty in Russia, tells court she brought marijuana into country accidentally

WNBA star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty in Russia on Thursday to drug possession and smuggling charges, telling a Moscow court she brought marijuana into the country by accident.

Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in February after Russian officials claimed she had cannabis oil in her luggage. A Russian judge ordered Griner, the Phoenix Mercury center who played in Russia during the WNBA off-season, to remain in custody.

"I would like to plead guilty on the charges against me, but I had no intention on breaking any Russian law," she said in court. "I was in a rush packing and the cartridges accidentally ended up in my bags."

U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner's trial in Khimki
U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner is escorted before a court hearing in Khimki, outside Moscow, Russia, July 7, 2022. EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA / REUTERS

Griner's Russian legal team said the guilty plea was "her decision informed by discussion with her legal defense team." 

"Brittney sets an example of being brave," the lawyers said in a statement. "She decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people." 

"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 lawyers added. 

The hearing on Thursday saw another witness questioned before Griner pleaded guilty. The WNBA player is expected to give her testimony at a later date and has requested time to prepare for it. The session adjourned until July 14.

If convicted on drug smuggling charges, Griner could face 10 years in a Russian prison.

Griner's plea could bring the verdict in her case closer, which would then allow her defense team and U.S. officials to trigger proceedings to try and secure her release. 

Russian media had speculated that Griner could be a part of a prisoner swap similar to the one U.S. and Russia arranged in the spring, exchanging former Marine Trevor Reed with pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was jailed years ago on drug smuggling charges.

A high-ranking Russian diplomat signaled earlier Thursday that Moscow would be prepared to negotiate Griner's fate, but only after the court hands its verdict. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov also criticized U.S. attempts "to stir hype" around Griner's case after the U.S. government classified her as "wrongfully detained" and assigned a "hostage envoy" to work on her case.

"We have a long-established form of discussing these issues, and the attempts of the American side to stir hype and make noise in the public sphere are clear to us, they do not help the practical solution of the issue," Ryabkov said, according to TASS news agency.

In a handwritten letter from Griner that was delivered to the White House on Monday, the WNBA player wrote how terrified she is that she may be imprisoned in Russia "forever."

President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Griner's wife Cherelle on Wednesday. The White House said he sought "to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney's release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world." 

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