Russia to open trial against U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner

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  • Griner in detention since February
  • Case coincides with Russia-U.S. standoff over Ukraine
  • U.S. officials, athletes call for her release

June 30 (Reuters) - U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner goes on trial in Russia on Friday on drug charges that could see her face up to 10 years in prison, in a case caught up in the fraught relations between Moscow and Washington.

Griner, a star in the U.S.-based Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on Feb. 17, just days before Russia invaded Ukraine, unleashing a broader confrontation with the West.

Russian authorities said the 31-year-old athlete was carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil, a substance illegal in the country. She was charged with smuggling a large quantity of drugs, an offence that can carry up to 10 years in prison.

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U.S. officials and a score of athletes have called for the release of Griner - or "BG" as she is known to basketball fans. They say she has been wrongfully detained and should be immediately returned to her family in the United States.

Griner's detention also prompted concerns that Moscow could use the two-time Olympic gold medallist to negotiate the release of a high-profile Russian in U.S. custody.

Griner's wife, Cherelle Griner, told CNN in an interview on Thursday evening that she was hoping for a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden.

"I would love for him to tell me he cares," Cherelle Griner said.

The U.S. government has warned citizens against travelling to Russia in light of the "potential for harassment against U.S. citizens by Russian government security officials".

The Kremlin has said that Griner violated Russian laws and denied she was being held hostage amid Russia's stand-off with the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week there was "no higher priority" than bringing home Griner and other Americans "illegally detained" abroad.

Griner plays centre for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA and is a seven-time WNBA All-Star.

For years, Griner played for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia during the WNBA off-season, like several other U.S. players offered lucrative contracts by the Russian Women's Basketball Premier League.

Griner's detention, combined with Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, prompted several foreign players to leave the Russian league.

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Reporting by Reuters; Additional reporting by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles Editing by Alex Richardson and Richard Pullin

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