Witnesses testify in Griner’s defense as drug trial continues in Russia
By Dan Bilefsky, Ivan Nechepurenko, Tania Ganguli and Anton Troianovski
Witnesses for the defense praised Brittney Griner’s athletic prowess and character 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.
Maxim Ryabkov, director of UMMC Ekaterinburg, the professional Russian team that Griner has played for, testified to her “outstanding abilities as a player and personal contribution to the strengthening the team’s spirit,” said Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, a partner with the firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners.
Griner’s trial resumed a week after she pleaded guilty to drug charges. 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 Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason. In the Russian justice system, trials go on even when defendants plead guilty, but Griner’s lawyers have said they hoped her plea would make the court more lenient.
The trial was expected to continue Friday.
The harshest outcome — a possible 10-year sentence in a penal colony — remains a possibility even after 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 have played down the possibility of any imminent resolution to Griner’s case.
Asked about the possibility of a prisoner swap, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday: “We never discuss issues of exchanges.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova repeated that any negotiations around Griner ought to be done outside the spotlight. She added that such talks could bear fruit only 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,” Zakharova said.
Griner, 31, one of the WNBA’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, 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.
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 Blinken has vowed that the U.S. government will not back down until Griner and other “wrongfully detained Americans” are brought home.
The case is also bound up in issues of race, gender and sexuality. 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.
American basketball superstar LeBron James recently appeared to criticize the U.S. government’s efforts to bring Griner home.
“Now, how can she feel like America has her back?” 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 Tuesday that he “wasn’t knocking our beautiful country.”