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WNBA's Brittney Griner back in Russia court amid hopes for possible prisoner swap

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WNBA star Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing on Tuesday at the Khimki City Court outside Moscow, Russia. Griner was arrested in February at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport after some hashish oil was found in her luggage. Photo by Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE
WNBA star Brittney Griner is escorted to a courtroom for a hearing on Tuesday at the Khimki City Court outside Moscow, Russia. Griner was arrested in February at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport after some hashish oil was found in her luggage. Photo by Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE

Aug. 2 (UPI) -- WNBA star Brittney Griner was back in a Russian court on Tuesday as U.S. officials work to win her release following more than five months of detention on drug charges.

Griner, 31, is still on trial for the charges and her legal team is seeking leniency from the Khimki court judge, who is expected to hand down her sentence this month. She faces as many as 10 years behind bars.

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A prisoner swap that would spring Griner from jail in Russia is possible after U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said last week that "a substantial offer" had been put on the table. He said he's also pressed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for the release of former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been in a Russian prison since late 2018 after he was convicted of espionage charges.

As part of the exchange for Whelan and Griner, the United States could free convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

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Russian officials say that talks are ongoing, but "a concrete result has not yet been achieved," according to ABC News.

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American citizen Paul Whelan holds a sign denouncing the Russian legal proceedings against him as he stands inside the defendant's cage prior to hearing the verdict in his espionage trial at the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Russia, on June 15, 2020. File Photo by Yuri Kochetkov/EPA-EFE

In her last court appearance on July 27, Griner testified that she'd accidentally packed the vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage and that she had no "intention" of breaking Russian law. The cartridges were found in her luggage at a Russian airport in February, leading to her arrest. The cannabis substance is illegal in Russia.

Defense lawyers have presented evidence at trial that Griner has a prescription for medical cannabis to treat chronic pain.

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Legal experts believe that Griner's conviction in the case is all but certain, as nearly 100% of defendants in Russia are convicted during legal proceedings. Griner pleaded guilty to the charges last month in a bid for leniency.

In Russia, defendants go through criminal trials even if they plead guilty to the charges. Legal experts say the full legal process must play out with Griner admitting guilt and being convicted before Russian officials would begin to consider a prisoner swap.

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Sentencing is expected by the middle of this month. Under the Russian legal system, Griner is entitled to an appeal.

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