- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2022

U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty in a Russian court Thursday to drug charges but said she did not intend to break the law, as the White House vowed to use every means it has to bring her home.

Griner entered the plea ahead of her trial on charges she brought vape cartridges with oil derived from cannabis to a Moscow airport in February.

“I’d like to plead guilty, your honor. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law,” she said, according to a Reuters report from the courtroom.

Griner, 31, said she did not intend to carry the cartridges in her luggage and packed in a hurry. Her next hearing is scheduled for July 14.

Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and WNBA All-Star with the Phoenix Mercury.

She played in Russia during the offseason in the U.S., but was swept into the fraught diplomatic situation around Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

SEE ALSO: Family of Marine jailed in Russia slams Biden’s call to Griner’s wife, says he ignores them

The Kremlin insisted that Griner was lawfully detained and said she can appeal the court’s procedures and look for clemency on the charges, which carry a maximum penalty of 10 years.

Putin could use Griner as a bargaining chip to secure the release of Russian prisoners.

Media reports have theorized the Russians would want to spring Viktor Bout — a notorious arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death” who is serving a 25-year sentence — in a prisoner swap with the U.S.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Griner‘s guilty plea will not have a direct bearing on negotiations and that she cannot publicly outline every step the administration plans to take for safety reasons.

“We believe that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained Brittney Griner and she is in intolerable circumstances right now,” she said. “I’m not going to negotiate from here.”

She said the U.S. will use “every means” to bring Ms. Griner home alongside Paul Whelan, another U.S. national detained in Russia.

The situation is placing immense pressure on Biden, who spoke to Griner‘s wife this week and pledged to try and secure her release.

The Mercury held a public rally in Phoenix on Wednesday in support of Griner and, on Thursday, posted a video from teammate Diana Taurasi that prods the White House to get Griner home.

“We’re here to make sure that President Biden and the administration don’t stop until BG’s home, safe and sound,” Taurasi says. “We’re not going to stop until she’s home. We love you BG.”

Griner made a direct plea on July 4 to Biden, who recently secured the release of another American — Trevor Reed — from Russia, to use his presidential powers to help her and other detainees.

“Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore,” her letter said. “I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”

Whelan’s family told Biden to fight just as hard for his release alongside Griner.

Elizabeth Whelan, the sister of Paul Whelan, called on Biden to reach out to her family to talk about bringing her brother home to the U.S.

“Still looking for that press release saying @POTUS has spoken to anyone in OUR family about #PaulWhelan, wrongfully detained in #Russia for 3.5 years,” Elizabeth Whelan wrote.

Whelan is serving 16 years of hard labor at a Russian prison camp after his arrest and trial on charges of spying. The Whelan family has always maintained his innocence and he has criticized his trial as a “sham.”

Biden is said to be receiving regular updates on the Whelan case and staff from the Special Envoy for Hostage affairs held a call with Elizabeth Whelan earlier this week.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have also reached out to Whelan, although Biden has not.

“President Biden has been clear about the need to secure the release of Paul Whalen as soon as possible, as well as the release of Brittney Griner and other U.S. nationals who are wrongfully detained or held hostage in Russia and around the world,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement to The Washington Times.

Blinken on Thursday said U.S. Embassy officials attended the court proceedings and gave her a letter from Biden.

“We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” he tweeted.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at jmordock@washingtontimes.com.

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