Russia to open trial against U.S. basketball star Griner


FILE PHOTO: Brittney Griner of the United States congratulates a team mate during their Women's Basketball Gold Medal game against Japan at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, August 8, 2021. Picture taken August 8, 2021. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

(Reuters) - U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner goes on trial in Russia on Friday on drug charges that could see her face up to 10 years in jail, in a case that highlights the already fraught relations between Moscow and Washington.

Griner, a star player in the U.S.-based Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on Feb. 17, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, unleashing a broader confrontation with the West.

Russian authorities said the 31-year-old was carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil, a substance illegal in the country. She was charged with smuggling a large quantity of drugs, an offence that can carry up to 10 years in jail.

U.S. officials and a score of athletes have called for the release of Griner - or "BG" as she is known in the basketball community. They say she has been wrongfully detained and should be immediately returned to her family in the United States.

Griner's detention also prompted concerns that Moscow could use the two-time Olympic gold medallist to negotiate the release of a high-profile Russian in U.S. custody.

The U.S. government has warned citizens against travelling to Russia in light of the "potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials".

The Kremlin has said that Griner violated Russian laws and denied she was being held hostage amid Russia's stand-off with the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week there was "no higher priority" than bringing home Griner and other Americans "illegally detained" abroad.

Griner plays centre for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA and is a seven-time WNBA All-Star.

For years, Griner played for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia during the WNBA off-season, like several other U.S. players offered lucrative contracts by the Russian Women's Basketball Premier League.

Griner's detention, combined with Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, prompted several foreign players to leave the Russian league.

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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