Brittney Griner in court as Russia may want to use case to negotiate prisoner exchange with US

The US basketball star Brittney Griner has appeared in a Moscow court in a drug trafficking case that Russia may want to use to negotiate another prisoner exchange in its standoff with the United States.

Griner, who was arrested four months ago at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on the suspicion of cannabis possession, said that she understood the charges against her. It is not clear whether she entered a plea at Friday’s hearing, which took place at the Khimki city court outside Moscow.

Prosecutors claimed that she was carrying two vape canisters with cannabis oil totalling just over 0.7 grams when she was detained. She could be sentenced to 10 years in prison if she is convicted of large-scale transportation of drugs.

But the United States has classified her as “wrongfully detained” and has shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs – effectively the US government’s chief negotiator. Russian media have suggested that she could be exchanged for a high-value national, including the former arms dealer Viktor Bout, although the Biden administration would be hard-pressed to justify such a deal.

Friday’s court session was closed to the press. Griner, who arrived in a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt and wearing handcuffs, declined to answer reporters’ questions as she was brought into the courtroom.

But the US embassy charge d’affaires, Elizabeth Rood, told reporters that she was able to speak with Griner, who said she was “keeping the faith” and was doing “as well as could be expected” under the circumstances.

In a statement, the US embassy said that it was working hard to bring the Phoenix Mercury centre and two-time Olympic gold medallist home.

“We care deeply about this case and about Ms Griner’s welfare, as do so many Americans, and as we do with all US citizen prisoners overseas,” the embassy said.

Diplomatic expulsions have left the US embassy with minimal ability to support American citizens in Russian prisons. In one incident, Griner was unable to call her wife, Cheryl, last month because there was no one on duty at the embassy to connect them, the Associated Press reported. It would have been the couple’s first call in four months.

But Griner’s wife, Cherelle, told CNN that she feels not enough is being done by US diplomats, despite good intentions.

“I don’t think the maximum amount of effort is being done because again, the rhetoric and the actions don’t match,” she said in an interview.

Griner, who was in Russia to play for a local basketball club in the offseason, was arrested at a historic low point in US-Russian relations.

Russia has been accused of taking US citizens hostage in order to facilitate exchanges for convicted Russian prisoners. Recently, former marine Trevor Reed was exchanged for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving 20 years in a US prison for drug trafficking. Russian officials are understood to have sought the release of Bout, a convicted arms smuggler, in exchange for jailed Americans like Paul Whelan, an American convicted of spying. He denies the charges.