American basketball star Brittney Griner has testified at her drug possession trial in Russia that an interpreter translated only a fraction of what was said during questioning when she was detained at Moscow’s airport in February.
In her first testimony in the trial under questioning from the prosecution, Griner also said that besides the poor translation at the airport, she received neither an explanation of her rights nor access to a lawyer during the initial hours of her detention.
She said she used a translation app on her phone to get the basic idea of what she was told.
Griner has been held since mid-February after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Her arrest came at a time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington ahead of Russia sending troops into Ukraine later that month.
The slow-moving trial and Griner’s five months of detention have raised strong criticism among teammates and supporters in the United States, which has formally declared her to be “wrongfully detained” – a designation sharply rejected by Russian officials.
Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Trials in Russia proceed even after a guilty plea, and there has been speculation that her admission was a bid to move the legal process along in the hopes of a possible prisoner swap.
At the start of Wednesday’s session, Griner’s lawyers asked that she be allowed to testify outside the cage that is standard for defendants in Russian courts, arguing it was too small for the 6ft 9in athlete to testify while standing.
The judge denied the request but allowed her to speak while seated.
During her testimony, the Phoenix Mercury star and two-time Olympic gold medallist described making a gruelling 13-hour flight to Moscow from Arizona while recovering from Covid-19.
She recalled getting pulled aside at the airport on February 17 after inspectors found the cartridges.
Along with the interpreter who provided an incomplete translation, Griner said she received neither an explanation of her rights nor access to a lawyer and was instructed to sign documents without explaining what they said.
After hours of proceedings she did not understand, she was allowed to hand over her personal belongings to a lawyer before being led away in handcuffs, Griner said.
She said she received only a cursory translation of the allegations during a February 19 hearing where a court sanctioned her arrest.
Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, told reporters after Wednesday’s session that Griner “repeatedly underlined that she had no intention to bring the forbidden substances into Russia”.
The next trial session was set for August 2.
Griner’s trial began on July 1 in the Moscow suburb of Khimki where Sheremetyevo Airport is located, and it is unclear how long it will last.
On Tuesday, a Russian neuropsychologist testified about global use of medicinal cannabis, which is illegal in Russia.
Griner’s defence team has submitted to the court a US doctor’s letter recommending she use cannabis for pain.
Griner said on Wednesday she used medicinal cannabis for relief from pain due to injuries sustained during her career, adding that it is widely used in the US because it has fewer negative effects than some other painkillers.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said last week that the legalisation of cannabis for medical and recreational use in parts of the US had no bearing on what happens in Russia.
Elizabeth Rood, the US embassy’s charge d’affaires who has been attending the trial, said Griner was feeling well.
“We are going to continue to monitor the case of Ms Griner very closely, as well as the case of all US citizens detained or in prison in Russia,” she said.
Some of Griner’s supporters contend she is being held in Russia as a pawn, possibly for a prisoner swap.
US football notable Megan Rapinoe last week said “she’s being held as a political prisoner, obviously”.
Russian media have speculated that Griner could be exchanged for prominent Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, who is imprisoned in the United States, and that Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia for espionage, may also figure in an exchange.
US officials have not commented on the prospects for such a trade.
Russian officials have said no exchange could be discussed until the conclusion of the legal proceedings against Griner.