Brittney Griner, the American basketball star detained in Russia on drug charges, told a courtroom Wednesday that she had been tossed into a bewildering legal system with little explanation of what was happening and what she might do to try to defend herself.
Ms. Griner described arriving in Russia after an exhausting 13-hour flight — and soon after recovering from Covid — and finding herself in an interrogation in which much of what was being said remained untranslated. She said she was also told to sign papers with no explanation of what they were.
It was her first court testimony about her arrest in a case that has taken on outsize importance because of the war in Ukraine.
Ms. Griner arrived with her wrists shackled in front of her. She was flanked by Russian security agents, including some wearing bulletproof vests, their faces covered by balaclavas.
The authorities detained Ms. Griner, 31, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, about a week before President Vladimir V. Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine in February. She was accused of having two vape cartridges of hashish oil in her luggage when she arrived at an airport near Moscow on her way to Yekaterinburg, where she plays for a team in the W.N.B.A. off-season.
What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia
Russia did not make her detention public until after the invasion began.
Earlier this month, Ms. Griner pleaded guilty, saying that she had unintentionally carried a banned substance into Russia because she had packed in a hurry. In Russia, a guilty plea does not end a trial and the proceedings are expected to continue into August. She faces a possible 10-year sentence.
Ms. Griner’s lawyers have said they hope her guilty plea will make the court more lenient, but experts say that her best hope is that the Biden administration finds a way to swap her for a high-profile Russian who is being held by the United States.
On Wednesday, the American secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, said the United States had “put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago” to gain the release of Ms. Griner and Paul Whelan, a former Marine who was sentenced last year to 16 years in prison on espionage charges. He declined to discuss details of the offer.
But a person briefed on the negotiations said that the United State offered to trade an imprisoned Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, for Ms. Griner and Mr. Whelan, and that President Biden — who has been under growing political pressure to free the Americans — had backed the offer.
Testifying from an enclosed witness box on Wednesday, Ms. Griner said she had been pulled aside during a luggage check in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, according to one of her lawyers, Aleksandr Boikov, from the Moscow Legal Center.
The Plight of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star has endured months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.
- Why Griner Was in Russia: Brittney Griner was playing for the basketball team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the W.N.B.A. off-season.
- The Ordeal, in Her Own Words: During her trial, Ms. Griner said she had been tossed into a bewildering legal system with little explanation of what she might do to try to defend herself.
- Hostage Diplomacy: In recent years, several Americans have been swept up by hostile governments looking to use them as bargaining chips. Brittney Griner might be one of them.
- The N.B.A.’s Low Profile: The league has been mostly quiet in the public campaign to free Ms. Griner, even though it founded and still partly owns the W.N.B.A. Here’s why.
Ms. Griner testified that she had been told to sign documents during her detention without an explanation of what they meant, Mr. Boikov said. An interpreter provided to Ms. Griner after her arrest translated “almost nothing,” he said, and she was held for 16 hours before a lawyer came to help her.
Maria Blagovolina, a lawyer with the Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners firm who is also representing Ms. Griner, said in a statement her client had told the court that she had a “doctor’s prescription for the use of medical cannabis” and had “emphasized that she never planned to bring it to Russia and use it.”