Brittney Griner trial: first witnesses speak as Russian trial starts Griner, 31, is "a bit worried" because of the trial and the potential of a prison sentence, he lawyer tells NPR, "but she's a tough lady and I think she will manage."

Russian prosecutors call first witnesses in case against Brittney Griner

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

WNBA star Brittney Griner has been detained in Russia for more than four months now on drug charges. Her family, friends and supporters have been pressing the Biden administration to secure her release. Well, her trial finally began today in Moscow, and NPR's Charles Maynes was at the courthouse.

Welcome.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

SHAPIRO: So my understanding is that press access was limited. What did you glean from today's proceedings?

MAYNES: Well, you know, we learned a bit more about the charges themselves. The prosecution claims that Russian customs agents found two vape cartridges with a total of just over two-thirds of a gram of hash oil in Griner's backpack and suitcase when she arrived to a Moscow airport last February. They noted it was for personal use but that Griner had intentionally sought to import these prohibited substances into the Russian Federation. And in fact, the prosecution called two of the customs officials who supposedly inspected Griner as witnesses today.

SHAPIRO: So the trial is really underway. Of course, this comes against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, antagonistic relations between the U.S. and Russia. How is that impacting the case?

MAYNES: Well, you know, the U.S. would say a lot. The U.S. government declared her wrongfully detained in May. The case has since been handed to this U.S. envoy for hostage affairs. And certainly there's intense public pressure on the Biden administration to do something about it. U.S. officials seem to stress they hear that message loud and clear. Here's the U.S. Embassy's deputy chief of mission, Elizabeth Rood, who attended the trial and spoke afterwards.

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ELIZABETH ROOD: I can assure you that the United States government, at the very highest levels, is working very hard to bring Ms. Griner, as well as all wrongfully detained U.S. citizens, safely home.

SHAPIRO: That phrase wrongfully detained seems very relevant. Do we have any sense of how she herself, Brittney Griner, is doing?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, we saw Griner only briefly. The press was kept at a distance. She was led by guards, handcuffed and dressed in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. The U.S. Embassy's Elizabeth Rood said she had a chance to speak with Griner during the hearing and said she was, quote, "in good spirits and keeping up the faith" given the circumstances. That sentiment was also conveyed by Griner's Russian lawyer, Alexander Boykov.

ALEXANDER BOYKOV: She's a bit worried because she has the trial and she has sentencing in the close future. But she's a tough lady.

SHAPIRO: How is Russian media covering this story? It's been huge in the U.S. Are Russians aware of it?

MAYNES: Well, they're covering it, but it doesn't have quite the same level of attention that we see in the U.S. Keep in mind that the Kremlin insists Griner isn't a hostage and that this isn't about politics or geopolitics. The Russian government argues this is just a story of an American - OK, a high-profile American - facing the consequences of carrying illegal substances into Russia.

SHAPIRO: OK, so the trial is underway. The U.S. says they're doing everything they can to get her out. Any sense of how this is likely to end?

MAYNES: Well, you know, it seems clear we'll have to see the trial through, and it'll take a while, too. The hearings pick up again on July 7 - that's next Thursday - but it'll be several rounds of hearings before Griner's defense even gets to make its case. Meanwhile, there are reports - or rumors, whispers, call them what you want - of a possible trade for Griner and not least because the Biden administration just did a prisoner swap with Russia to free another jailed American, U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, from a Russian prison back in April. You know, Reed's now safely home. Griner's family and supporters want the same.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Charles Maynes covering the Brittney Griner trial in Moscow. Thanks a lot.

MAYNES: Thank you.

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