Witnesses for the defense praised Brittney Griner’s athletic prowess and character on Thursday in a courtroom outside Moscow, where the American basketball star — now one of the world’s most famous prisoners — is facing a possible 10-year sentence on drug charges.
Maksim Ryabkov, the director of UMMC Yekaterinburg, the professional Russian team that Ms. Griner has played for, testified to her “outstanding abilities as a player and personal contribution to the strengthening the team’s spirit,” said Ms. Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, a partner with the firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners.
Ms. Griner’s trial resumed a week after she pleaded guilty to drug charges. The Russian authorities accused her of having a vape cartridge with hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow on Feb. 17, where she had traveled to play with UMMC Yekaterinburg during the W.N.B.A. off-season. In the Russian justice system, trials go on even when defendants plead guilty, but Ms. Griner’s lawyers have said they hoped her plea would make the court more lenient.
The trial was expected to continue on Friday.
The harshest outcome — a possible 10-year sentence in a penal colony — remains a possibility even after Ms. Griner’s lawyers contended that she packed the smoking cartridges by mistake.
Despite pressure for the United States to make a deal to free her, possibly through a prisoner exchange, Russian officials have emphasized that no negotiations could occur until the proceedings are finished, and played down the possibility of any imminent resolution to Ms. Griner’s case.
What to Know About Brittney Griner’s Detention in Russia
Asked about the possibility of a prisoner swap, Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said on Thursday: “We never discuss issues of exchanges.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, Maria V. Zakharova, repeated that any negotiations around Ms. Griner ought to be done outside of the spotlight. She added that such talks could only bear fruit after a verdict had been brought in her case, and urged U.S. officials “to abandon futile attempts to put pressure on us,” the Interfax news agency reported.
“The trial of Griner continues, and until it ends it is generally premature to discuss any options for her return home,” Ms. Zakharova said.
Ms. Griner, 31, one of the W.N.B.A.’s brightest stars and a two-time Olympic gold medalist with the U.S. women’s basketball team, has become caught up in Washington’s increasingly acrimonious relationship with Moscow amid the war in Ukraine.
With legal experts saying that a guilty verdict is all but a foregone conclusion in a justice system that heavily favors the prosecution, Ms. Griner’s chances at freedom could depend on whether U.S. officials can negotiate her release, or if she can obtain clemency after a verdict is reached.
The Plight of Brittney Griner in Russia
The American basketball star has endured months in a Russian prison on charges of smuggling hashish oil into the country.
Her best hope, experts say, is that the Biden administration carries out an exchange by releasing a Russian jailed in the United States. Russian media outlets have linked her case to Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year federal sentence in Illinois for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.
Amid criticism that Washington is not doing enough to secure her release, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has vowed that the U.S. government will not back down until Ms. Griner and other “wrongfully detained Americans” are brought home.
The case is also bound up in issues of race, gender and sexuality. Ms. Griner is Black and openly gay, and her many supporters have worried that her chances for a fair trial are even more remote in Russia, a country where gay people face routine discrimination.
The American basketball superstar LeBron James recently appeared to criticize the U.S. government’s efforts to bring Ms. Griner home. “Now, how can she feel like America has her back?” Mr. James said in a trailer for an episode of his television show, “The Shop: Uninterrupted.” “I would be feeling like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America?’” After facing a backlash, he clarified in a tweet on Tuesday that he “wasn’t knocking our beautiful country.”
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