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In Moscow trial, Britney Griner is expected to testify in her own defense

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

American basketball star Brittney Griner returns to court in Moscow today, where she's expected to testify in her own defense. A hearing yesterday was cut short due to high temperatures in the courtroom. Griner already pleaded guilty to charges of smuggling vape cartridges with hash oil into the country but argued she did not intentionally break Russian law. Joining us now from Moscow is NPR's Charles Maynes to discuss.

Hi, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

FADEL: So, Charles, remind us of where we are in this trial and how it's gotten to this point.

MAYNES: Sure. You know, just to back up, Griner was detained at a Moscow airport in February as she arrived for off-season play here in Russia. As you mentioned, you know, Griner later copped to the main charge in court. She said, yes, these vape cartridges found in her bags were hers, but she had no intention of breaking Russian law. It was an accident.

Now, Griner's defense team has since worked to present Griner as a sympathetic figure. A couple weeks ago, I watched as one of her Russian teammates - the team captain, in fact - and an executive from the team both gave testimony. They said Griner was well loved by players and fans, both on and off the court, in her city of Yekaterinburg, where she plays. They also argued Griner had done a lot for Russia, helping win championships not only at home, but also in Europe. And they said that Russian success came because Griner was there leading the way, sometimes even at the expense of her own health.

FADEL: So trying to paint a sympathetic picture of Griner. So you've been covering the trial. Any idea from Griner's lawyers what she might say today when she testifies?

MAYNES: Well, you know, presumably Griner will speak in more detail about how these vape charges ended up in her bag and why she had them in the first place. You know, in recent hearings, the defense has presented evidence that Griner was legally prescribed this hashish oil by a U.S. doctor and that it was to treat pain, not for recreational use. Her Russian team is pointing out that Griner, both as an international athlete and gold medal Olympian, has never failed a drug test.

They've also pointed out the pounding that Griner's body took from playing year round, not just in the WNBA, but abroad, as many of the league stars do to supplement their income. So yesterday in court, the defense, in fact, had an expert witness who tried to detail how medical marijuana can be used to treat chronic pain. But the session was cut short. It's been really, really hot in that courtroom. It's a small room with no air conditioning. And a U.S. official from the embassy who was attending the trial grew faint. So the judge adjourned the proceedings early.

FADEL: Now, many observers say that Griner's predicament is also political, that it's not just about hash oil, that she's being used as a pawn in Russia's confrontation with the West over the war in Ukraine. Is that the case?

MAYNES: Well, you're right. I mean, on the surface of things, it's a trial about these drug charges, which - by Russian law, Griner faces a possible 10 years in prison. But, of course, this has all unfolded against the backdrop of U.S.-Russian relations hitting rock bottom over the conflict in Ukraine. The U.S. says she's unlawfully detained. They've assigned her case to the Bureau of Hostage Affairs, even as Russia insists the case is not political. And yet there have been all these constant rumors of a possible prisoner swap.

The White House says getting her home is a priority, and certainly the administration is under immense public pressure to do so. The Russians say that there are their citizens in American prisons that they would like to see come home, and they've made no secret of that. But the catch is that Russia says none of that can happen while the trial's ongoing. So you can understand Griner's urge to just get it over with. Russian criminal courts also have a 99% conviction rate. So there's an argument here that playing for leniency rather than an acquittal is the smart legal move.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you so much.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "LUNAMOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.