It has all the elements of a dark episode from the Cold War.
An American basketball star is detained in Russia, ensnared in what some U.S. officials have called a sham trial influenced by the geopolitics of a military conflict. Moscow then accuses the United States of hyping the case for political ends. Talk of a potential prisoner swap bubbles beneath the surface.
The trial of Brittney Griner resumes Thursday in a courtroom outside of Moscow, and the world is watching to see what happens to Ms. Griner, who has unwillingly become one of the world’s most famous prisoners, and has spent more than 140 days in custody in Russia.
The case began in the run-up to the war in Ukraine when Ms. Griner was detained on Feb. 17, accused by the authorities of having a vape cartridge with hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.
Last week, Ms. Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges, stressing that she had no intention to break the law; her lawyers have said that she inadvertently packed the smoking cartridges while in a rush and had made a mistake. As her trial continues and she awaits formal conviction and sentencing proceedings, several questions are swirling.
Could she face a 10-year sentence in a Russian penal colony? Is the outcome of the trial a foregone conclusion, as legal experts on Russian justice suggest? Or will a behind-the-scenes deal between Washington and Moscow result in Ms. Griner’s eventual freedom?
Given the acrimonious relations between Washington and Moscow, Washington’s options to secure her freedom are circumscribed. With a guilty verdict all but a foregone conclusion, her best hope, experts say, is that the Biden administration secures her freedom by releasing a Russian held in the United States. Russian media outlets have been linking her case to Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” who is in a prison in Illinois, serving a 25-year federal sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.
The case of an American sports star behind bars and at the mercy of Russia’s notoriously politicized judicial system has reverberated across the world. In the United States, it has garnered the attention of President Biden and galvanized the support of many in the American sports world, while also prompting criticism that Washington is not doing enough to secure Ms. Griner’s release.
Ms. Griner’s imprisonment is also bound up in issues of race, gender and sexuality, as she is Black and openly gay, prompting concerns among her many supporters that her chances for a fair trial are even more remote in Russia, a country where gay people are routinely discriminated against and stigmatized.
In a trailer for an episode of his television show “The Shop: Uninterrupted,” the American basketball superstar LeBron James recently appeared to criticize efforts by the United States to bring Ms. Griner home. “Now, how can she feel like America has her back?” Mr. James said in the trailer. “I would be feeling like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?’”
He later elaborated in a tweet on Tuesday that he “wasn’t knocking our beautiful country.” “I was simply saying how she’s probably feeling emotionally along with so many other emotions, thoughts, etc inside that cage she’s been in for over 100+ days!” he wrote. “Long story short #BringHerHome.”
Speaking ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Ms. Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, said that the fact that she had pleaded guilty wouldn’t affect the trial’s pace.
“The court will be looking at all evidence in any case,” said Ms. Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin, a Moscow law firm. “We hope that her guilty plea would make the court more lenient,” Ms. Blagovolina added.
Asked whether Ms. Griner would be asking for clemency, Ms. Blagovolina said that for now her legal team was focused on the trial and would need to wait for the verdict before making any decisions.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has vowed that the U.S. government will not back down until Ms. Griner and other “wrongfully detained Americans” are brought home.
Whatever the outcome of the case, the emotional cost for Ms. Griner, who has two Olympic gold medals, has been severe.
“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner wrote in a recent letter to President Biden, adding, “Please don’t forget about me.”
Tania Ganguli in Las Vegas contributed reporting.