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Home World News Washington Post World News Russia warns US of pressure on prisoner swap ahead of Griner trial

Russia warns US of pressure on prisoner swap ahead of Griner trial



RIGA, Latvia – Russia’s foreign ministry on Thursday warned Washington not to put pressure on Moscow over the prisoner exchange, hours before US WNBA star Brittney Griner arrived at a suburban court for a third hearing in her trial on drug charges, which she could serve 10 years. in jail.

Griner did not testify at Thursday’s hearing; her legal team called colleagues from UMMC Ekaterinburg — the basketball team Griner plays for during the WNBA offseason — as character witnesses in defense.

A week earlier, Griner pleaded guilty to carrying 0.702 grams of cannabis oil in two vape cartridges.

Amid intense pressure on the Biden administration to secure Griner’s release, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that this was “pointless” and claimed US officials were trying to leverage the pressure. .

“We urge US authorities not to abuse this sensitive issue that affects the fate of certain individuals, and advise them to cease futile efforts to pressure us,” Zakharova said.

Griner pleads guilty to drug possession in Russian court

She called on Washington to “work through established channels. It simply cannot be otherwise.”

It is the second warning in eight days from a senior Russian official that the pressure surrounding Griner’s case would not help her case. Last week, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov hinted that there were channels to negotiate the issue, but only after Griner’s trial is completed. He also warned of public “hype” about the case.

Zakharova answered a question from state-owned RIA Novosti about whether talks were underway with Washington about a prisoner swap, amid mounting speculation about a possible swap involving Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. He has spent 25 years in the United States for conspiracy to sell weapons to a foreign terrorist group and conspiracy to murder American citizens.

US deputy chief of mission Elizabeth Rood attended the hearing on Thursday but did not comment to the media. The trial will meet again Friday morning.

Who is Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer being watched in prisoner swap rumors?

When she pleaded guilty last week, Griner insisted she had no intention of breaking Russian law and that she was in a hurry when packing, with the cartridges accidentally ending up in her luggage.

It is unclear when Griner will be convicted. Her attorney, Maria Blagovolina, said last week that the legal team would ask the judge for a lenient sentence based on Griner’s admission of guilt.

According to the prosecutors’ case, in February, a week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian customs officials found two vape cartridges containing .702 grams of cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.

Griner was in the country to play for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason.

The State Department says Griner was wrongly detained by Russia along with another American, a Paul Whelan, a former Marine and a security adviser convicted of espionage who has been in custody since December 2018.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said his top priority is the release of Griner, Whelan and other Americans wrongfully imprisoned abroad.

When asked whether deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow affect the chances of a prisoner swap, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday it never spoke of the prisoner exchange. “And relations have indeed deteriorated. That’s all I can say.”

The Kremlin denies that Griner’s trial is political or that she is a hostage, as her supporters in the United States believe.

In April, Moscow Naval veteran Trevor Reed traded for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot who was serving a 20-year prison sentence in Connecticut for drug trafficking. Reed had been in ill health for months. He was jailed for nine years in Russia after being convicted of assault that endangered the lives of police officers. Reed consistently said he was innocent.

The White House said last week that Griner was being held under “excruciating conditions.” President Biden and Vice President Harris called Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and told her they were doing everything they could to secure Griner’s freedom.

Griner recently wrote to Biden begging him not to forget her and other inmates, saying, “I’m terrified I might be here forever.”

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The State Department’s efforts to free her have been complicated by the diplomatic chill between Washington and Moscow since President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian officials accuse the United States of using Ukraine as an “anti-Russia” project.

As relations deteriorated and diplomatic efforts to avert the war failed, in January the State Department issued a warning to Americans not to travel to Russia and warned people in the country to leave if they could.

Biden’s phone call to Cherelle Griner and his letter to Brittney Griner angered Whelan’s family, who were already angry that he had been left behind in the April prisoner swap and concerned that his case was not getting the same attention from officials as Griner’s. After Whelan’s family expressed anger in media interviews, Biden called Whelan’s sister, Elizabeth, last week.

“Everyone wants this across the board to end,” Elizabeth Whelan said on Wednesday, adding that the Russian justice system had dragged her brother’s case and expressed concern that Griner’s case could follow a similar pattern. “You never really know what to expect,” she says.

Her brother had traveled to Moscow for a friend’s wedding and was arrested in his hotel room. He was convicted of espionage in a closed trial in 2020 and sentenced to 16 years in prison. During the trial, he said he had been framed.

Horton reported from Washington.

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