WNBA’s Griner gains character witness trial support

KHIMKI, Russia (AP) — Brittney Griner’s drug possession trial resumed Thursday with the head of the Russian club she plays for in the offseason and a teammate from that team testifying in support of her character and what the WNBA star meant for

KHIMKI, Russia (AP) — Brittney Griner’s drug possession trial resumed Thursday with the head of the Russian club she plays for in the offseason and a teammate from that team testifying in support of her character and what the WNBA star has meant for women’s basketball in the country.

Griner, who pleaded guilty last week, did not testify as scheduled on the third day of the trial. She has been detained in Russia since February and the US government is under pressure at home to do more to secure her freedom. His guilty plea could be an effort to speed up the legal process so that any negotiations on a prisoner exchange can move forward.

Griner was arrested at the Russian capital’s Sheremetyevo airport when customs officials said they found vaping canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She admitted in court that she had the canisters, but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing. She faces up to 10 years in prison.

In the Russian justice system, admitting guilt does not automatically end a trial

Most reporters were denied access to Thursday’s session, but the manager of UMMC Ekaterinburg, for which she plays in the WNBA offseason, told reporters afterwards that he testified as a character witness.

“Our task today was to tell the court about her characteristics as an athlete, as a person – to tell how she played a big role in the success of the Ektaerinburg club and Russian women’s basketball in as a whole,” club manager Maxim Rybakov said.

“Today is the first day we’ve seen our basketball player since February. Thank goodness she feels good, she looks good,” Rybakov said outside the courthouse in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, where the airport.

Player Evgenia Belyakova said she testified that “Brittney has always been a really good teammate, so my role here is just to be with her, to support her.”

“We miss her a lot, we miss her energy,” Belyakova added. “I was very happy to see her and I hope this trial will end soon and with a positive outcome.”

Elizabeth Rood, charge d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and other consular officials were also present in court, and they were able to speak to Griner, who told them she appreciated their presence. said the US State Department.

The next trial session is set for Friday.

Griner is one of America’s hottest female athletes, a star for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist.

US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said they are doing everything possible to secure his release, as well as those of other Americans whom the United States considers “wrongfully detained” by Russia, including former Marine Paul Whelan.

However, Washington may have little influence over Moscow, due to strong animosity over its military operation in Ukraine.

Russian media speculated that Griner could be traded for Russian arms dealer Viktor Boutnicknamed “the Merchant of Death”, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States after being convicted of conspiracy to kill American citizens and aiding a terrorist organization.

Russia has been agitating for years for Bout’s release. But the big difference in the severity of their cases could make such a trade unpleasant in Washington. Others have suggested Griner could be swapped with Whelan, who is serving 16 years in Russia on an espionage conviction the United States has described as a setup.

The State Department’s designation of Griner as wrongfully detained puts his case under the supervision of its Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, making him the government’s chief hostage negotiator. The ranking irritated Russia.

Asked about the possibility of Griner being exchanged for a Russian imprisoned in the United States, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, a senior Russian diplomat, noted that until the end of his trial “there is no reason formal or procedural to talk about new measures”. ”

Ryabkov warned that the American criticisms, including the description of Griner as wrongfully detained and the dismissive comments about the Russian justice system, “make it difficult to engage in a detailed discussion of any possible exchange.”

Griner’s detention was authorized until December 20, suggesting the trial could last for months. Griner’s attorneys, however, have said they expect it to end around early August.

Jim Heintz, Associated Press

Carol N. Valencia