14 July 2022

Russian basketball team boss gives evidence in US athlete’s drugs trial

14 July 2022

American basketball star Brittney Griner did not testify on the third day of her drugs possession trial in Russia but the director of the Russian team she plays for in the US off-season said he told the court about her merits.

Griner was arrested in February at the Russian capital’s Sheremetyevo Airport when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She has been held in jail since then, and faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Last week, Griner pleaded guilty. She acknowledged to the court that she possessed the canisters but said she had no criminal intent and said their presence in her luggage was due to hasty packing.

She was expected to testify on Thursday in the court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, where the airport is located, but did not.

Griner could face years in prison (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP) (AP)

In Russia’s judicial system, admitting guilt does not automatically end a trial.

Most journalists were denied access to Thursday’s court session but the manager of UMMC Ekaterinburg, for which she plays when the WNBA is not in season, said he testified as a character witness.

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

“Today is the first day when we have seen our basketball player since February. Thank God, she feels well, looks good,” Mr Rybakov said.

The next trial session is set for Friday.

Cherelle Griner, wife of Brittney Griner, speaks during a news conference in Chicago (Nam Y. Huh/AP) (AP)

“I can say that Brittney has always been a very good teammate, so my role here is just to be with her, to support her. We miss her very much, we miss her energy.

“I was very happy to see her, and I hope this trial will be over soon and with a positive outcome,” said teammate Evgenia Belyakova, who also testified.

With the US government under pressure at home to do more to secure her freedom, her guilty plea last week 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.

Griner is one of the United States’ most prominent female athletes, a standout for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medallist.

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 US considers “wrongly detained” by Russia, including former marine Paul Whelan.

Washington may have little leverage with Moscow, though, because of strong animosity over its military operation 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 US after being convicted of conspiracy to kill US 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 US has described as a set-up.

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox