American basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a Moscow court Thursday, her lawyers said, leaving her facing the prospect of up to 10 years in prison as her family and friends step up their calls for the U.S. government to do more to free her.
Griner, 31, was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner’s lawyer, Alexander Boikov, told reporters outside the courtroom after Thursday’s hearing that the basketball star admitted that the vape canisters were hers, but said she brought them to Russia unintentionally.
Her other lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, said they hoped for the leniency of the court. Griner’s next hearing will take place next Thursday.
NBC News was not in the courtroom when Griner spoke.
Her latest appearance comes after President Joe Biden sought to reassure Griner’s wife that he was working to secure her release as fast as he could. Griner penned an emotional letter to the president earlier this week, pleading with him to bring her home.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted after the hearing that U.S. embassy officials spoke to Griner and delivered a letter from Biden as they attended her trial. “We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones,” he said.
Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, is serving a 16-year sentence for espionage.
The Kremlin has been accused of using Griner as a political pawn while the Biden administration has said she has been “wrongfully detained.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied Griner was being held as a hostage in Russia.
Griner, a 6-foot-9 native of Houston, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a center for the Phoenix Mercury who played for a Russian basketball team during the WNBA’s offseason. Her trial began last week.
She was led into the courtroom on Thursday in handcuffs, wearing glasses, a red t-shirt and red pants. Griner was later joined in the courtroom by three U.S. embassy representatives and her lawyers, with no TV cameras and only a few journalists allowed in.
Since her trial started, her family, friends and colleagues have increased their calls for the U.S. to do more to bring her home.
Her team held a rally in her support in Phoenix on Wednesday while Rev. Al Sharpton urged Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday to arrange for him and a group of faith leaders to meet Griner in Russia.
The White House said Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, on Wednesday to assure her that he is working to secure Griner’s release as soon as possible. He also read her a draft of the letter he was sending Griner on Wednesday, according to the White House readout of the call.
It came after Griner said in the handwritten letter addressed to Biden earlier this week that she was terrified she could be in Russian jail forever, imploring him to do all he can to bring her home.
In May, the State Department reclassified Griner as having been “wrongfully detained” and transferred oversight of her case to the State Department presidential envoy for hostage affairs. U.S. officials have said they are working behind the scenes to free her.
So far, Washington has not officially commented on any possible prisoner swaps, despite speculation in Russian state media in May that Griner could be exchanged for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S. NBC News wasn’t able to confirm those reports.
Russia’s foreign ministry said Thursday that “publicity and hype” in the media and online around Americans detained in Russia impedes the interaction between Moscow and the U.S. on prisoner exchanges, according to state news agency Tass.
Before Griner’s guilty plea, deputy foreign ministry spokesperson Alexey Zaitsev said Wednesday the American was arrested for “a serious offense, confirmed by indisputable evidence.” But he said she was free to file an appeal and to ask for clemency. As to a possible prisoner exchange, Zaitsev said the court would have to reach a verdict first, which he estimated could take at least a month.