Witnesses testify in support of Griner

Sports

MOSCOW (NewsNation) — After a multiple-hour delay, American basketball star Brittney Griner was back in Russian court Thursday as the trial that was jolted last week when she abruptly pleaded guilty to drug possession charges resumed.

Although Griner was not expected to testify Thursday, the court did hear witness testimony.

A Russian basketball club director gave evidence in support of Griner on Thursday in her third appearance in a Russian court on drugs charges carrying a possible jail sentence of up to 10 years.

Maria Blagovolina of the Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm, which is defending Griner, said UMMC Yekaterinburg club boss Maxim Ryabkov had testified to her good character during Thursday’s session, which was closed to reporters.

She said Ryabkov told the court of Griner’s “outstanding abilities as a player and personal contribution to strengthening team spirit.”

Team captain Yevgenia Belyakova also testified in Griner’s defense at the court in Khimki, on the outskirts of Moscow, where Griner had earlier arrived under guard and in handcuffs.

Blagovolina said the defense was pleased with the latest session.

“It was an extremely emotional day for Brittney, who was touched by the appearance of the club director, head physician and her teammate, who gave an extremely positive description of our client both personally and professionally,” she told Reuters.

Griner, who has played in Russia during offseasons since 2014, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 after vape cartridges containing hashish oil were allegedly found in her baggage.

A spokesman for Griner’s defense team said she would be back in court Friday.

With the U.S. government under pressure at home to do more to secure her freedom, the guilty plea could be an effort to expedite the court proceedings so any negotiations could move forward. A senior Russian diplomat has said no action could be taken by Moscow until the trial was over.

The Phoenix Mercury center and WNBA all-star was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February while returning to play basketball in Russia. Police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. In custody ever since, Griner, 31, faces charges that could bring her a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

In pleading guilty during the previous court hearing on July 7, Griner said she had no intention of committing a crime and had acted unintentionally because she packed for Moscow in a hurry.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said they were doing all they could to win the release of Griner, as well as other Americans the U.S. considers “wrongly detained” by Russia, including former Marine Paul Whelan.

But the Kremlin refused to comment Thursday on the prospect of a prisoner exchange for Griner.

Washington may have little leverage with Moscow, though, because of strong animosity over its military operation in Ukraine.

Russia has denied any political element to the case, at a time of heightened tension with the United States over the conflict in Ukraine.

Russian media have speculated that Griner could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

Russia has agitated for Bout’s release for years. But the wide discrepancy in the seriousness of their cases could make such a trade unpalatable to Washington. Others have suggested that Griner could be traded along with Whelan, who is serving 16 years in Russia on an espionage conviction that the U.S. has described as a setup.

The State Department’s designation of Griner as wrongfully detained moves her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator. The classification has irritated Russia.

Asked about the possibility of Griner being swapped for a Russian jailed in the U.S., Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the senior Russian diplomat, noted that until her trial is over “there are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps.”

Ryabkov warned that U.S. criticism, including the description of Griner as wrongfully detained and dismissive comments about the Russian judicial system, “makes it difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges.”

Griner’s detention has been authorized through Dec. 20, suggesting the trial could last months. Griner’s lawyers, however, said they expect it to conclude around the beginning of the August.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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