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Trial for WNBA star Brittney Griner begins in Russian court

The Phoenix Mercury star and Houston native was also ordered to remain in custody for the duration of her criminal trial.

MOSCOW, Russia — American basketball star Brittney Griner went on trial Friday, 4 1/2 months after her arrest on charges of possessing cannabis oil while returning to play for a Russian team, in a case that unfolded amid tense relations between Moscow and Washington.

The Phoenix Mercury center and two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist was arrested in February at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport after police said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. She could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale transportation of drugs.

Griner, 31, was escorted into the courtroom in the Moscow suburb of Khimki while handcuffed and wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. At a closed-door preliminary hearing Monday, her detention was extended for another six months, to Dec. 20, and her next court session was set for July 7.

Fewer than 1% of defendants in Russian criminal cases are acquitted, and unlike in the U.S., acquittals can be overturned.

Her wife Cherelle said in a TV interview Thursday night, that she hasn’t been able to talk to Brittney, but that through letters she expressed how she’s struggling and terrified.

Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Rood at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued the following statement:

"I did have the opportunity to speak with Miss Griner in the courtroom. She is doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances, and she asked me to convey that she's in good spirits and is keeping up the faith. The Russian Federation has wrongfully detained Miss Griner. Wrongful detention is unacceptable, wherever it occurs, and it endangers the safety of everyone travelling, living, working, studying abroad. I can assure you that the United States government at the very highest levels is working very hard to bring Miss Griner - as well as all wrongfully detained U.S. citizens - safely home."

On Monday, the court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki extended Griner’s detention for another six months after she appeared for a preliminary hearing held behind closed doors.

Photos obtained by the AP showed her appearing in handcuffs. Griner had previously been ordered to remain in pretrial detention until July 2.

Griner's detention and trial come at an extraordinarily low point in Moscow-Washington relations. She was arrested at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport less than a week before Russia sent troops into Ukraine, which aggravated already-high tensions with sweeping sanctions by the United States and Russia's denunciation of U.S. weapon supplies to Ukraine.

RELATED: Brittney Griner in Russia: WNBA star has detention extended 6 months

Amid the tensions, Griner's supporters had taken a low profile in hopes of a quiet resolution, until May, when the State Department reclassified her as wrongfully detained and shifted oversight of her case to its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs — effectively the U.S. government’s chief negotiator.

That move has drawn additional attention to Griner’s case, with supporters encouraging a prisoner swap like the one in April that brought home Marine veteran Trevor Reed in exchange for a Russian pilot convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy.

Russian news media have repeatedly raised speculation that she could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “The Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence on conviction of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

Russia has agitated for Bout's release for years. But the discrepancy between Griner's case — she allegedly was found in possession of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil — and Bout's global dealings in deadly weapons could make such a swap unpalatable to the U.S.

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Others have suggested that she could be traded in tandem with Paul Whelan, a former Marine and security director serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction that the United States has repeatedly described as a set-up.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, asked Sunday on CNN whether a joint swap of Griner and Whelan for Bout was being considered, sidestepped the question.

“As a general proposition ... I have got no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are being illegally detained in one way or another around the world come home,” he said. But “I can’t comment in any detail on what we’re doing, except to say this is an absolute priority.”

Any swap would apparently require Griner to first be convicted and sentenced, then apply for a presidential pardon, Maria Yarmush, a lawyer specializing in international civil affairs, told Kremlin-funded TV channel RT.

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