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Russia is open to freeing Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Brittney Griner may get her freedom yet. On Thursday, a Moscow court sentenced her to nine years in prison for carrying less than a gram of cannabis oil into Russia where she plays professional basketball during the WNBA's off-season. But there are hints Moscow and Washington may be moving toward a possible prisoner swap that could free her. NPR's Charles Maynes has been following the trial and joins us from Moscow. Thank you for being with us.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Happy to do it.

SIMON: First of all, you were in the courtroom when that verdict was read. What was that like? What was Brittney Griner's reaction?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Griner has been really composed throughout this ordeal, at least from what I've been able to observe, which made moments where she gets emotional rather striking like in her final statement to the court on Thursday when she expressed remorse for what she called an honest mistake that she said had embarrassed supporters not only in the U.S., but also in what she called her second home, with her team UMMC Yekaterinburg, or Ekat as she calls it for short, here.

BRITTNEY GRINER: I want to apologize to my teammates, my club UMMC, the fans and the city of Ekat for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought onto them.

SIMON: You can certainly hear emotion in her voice.

MAYNES: Yeah. And, you know, as to the verdict itself, of course, it was a blow. The judge showed little interest in the defense's arguments for leniency, ignoring Griner's guilty plea, her contributions to Russian basketball, or the fact that the cannabis oil was issued legally in the U.S. by a doctor for chronic pain and that Griner had never failed a drug test. You know, none of that mattered. The judge issued a nine-year sentence just shy of the maximum.

SIMON: Of course, President Biden condemned the ruling and says Brittney Griner is a political pawn. Yesterday, both Secretary of State Blinken and his Russian counterpart suggested the two sides are ready to talk about a prisoner swap. What do we know about that?

MAYNES: You know, Secretary Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were both in a meeting in Cambodia this week. And there, Lavrov was asked about Griner and said, look, a diplomatic channel for prisoner exchanges exists already. President Biden and President Vladimir Putin agreed to one back in 2020. And Lavrov said Russia remains open to discussions there provided they're out of the public eye. Now, separately, Blinken said, OK, that's where we'll press our case. But Lavrov also took a dig at Blinken saying, if Griner is so important, why did Blinken ignore me as we sat just a few feet from one another at meetings? And it just speaks to the animosity in the U.S.-Russian relationship these days even as they try and, in theory, cut a deal.

SIMON: Charles, any feeling of what the time could be like - weeks, days, months - before a swap might be worked out?

MAYNES: Yeah, it's tough to say. I mean, the U.S. made what Blinken calls its substantial proposal to Moscow weeks ago. That's to free Griner and another jailed American, former Marine Paul Whelan. By all accounts, that involves the release of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer currently in prison in Illinois. But the Kremlin, however, has insisted that Griner's trial first had to run its course, which brings us, of course, to the present.

But there are complicating factors here. You know, for example, Griner's lawyers say they'll pursue an appeal, but does that keep the trial alive in the eyes of the Russian government? Also, the larger issue - is Russia actually open to the U.S. offer as it stands? It's not lost on the Kremlin that President Biden faces intense public pressure to get Griner home. Moscow is reportedly pressing for a second Russian national to be included in the exchange over U.S. objections and - you know, which suggests that the Kremlin may be testing just how badly the White House needs a deal.

SIMON: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow, thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BRION'S "PACKING UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.