Brittney Griner returns to court as Russian basketball club director defends WNBA player

A Russian basketball boss has testified in defence of US star Brittney Griner, who is facing up to a decade in prison for drug possession charges.

The Phoenix Mercury player was arrested at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow on February 17 as she made her way back to Russia to play in the Women’s National Basketball Association off-season.

Police said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

Griner, 31, who has been in custody since then, pleaded guilty to charges that could land her a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and it was thought the plea could be an effort to expedite the court proceedings.

On Thursday, she appeared back before a Moscow court where Maxim Ryabkov, the boss of UMMC Yekaterinburg, the Russian club Griner plays for in the US off-season, had apparently testified to her good character.

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The WNBA paid tribute Brittany Griner, currently imprisoned on drug charges in Russia, at the All-Star game

The report from Reuters was, however, produced in Russia, where the law restricts some coverage, including of Russian military operations in Ukraine.

Ryabkov was said to have 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 her defence at the court in Khimki, on the outskirts of Moscow, where Griner had earlier arrived under guard and in handcuffs.

Maria Blagovolina, Griner’s lawyer, said it was “an extremely emotional day for Brittney” but she had been “touched by the appearance of the club director, head physician and her team-mate, who gave an extremely positive description” of her both personally and professionally.

‘No intention to commit a crime’

In Russia, a guilty plea does not mean the trial is automatically over.

Griner’s defence may put forward arguments during the hearing to mitigate punishment, or a verdict could even be announced.

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The Boston Celtics showed support for Brittney Griner ahead of the NBA Finals. The WNBA star has been detained in Russia for more than 100 days after vape cartridges containing oil derived from cannabis were allegedly found in her luggage.

Griner is one of the WNBA’s biggest ever stars, widely considered the best offensive player in the league. She is also a double Olympic gold medallist.

At a plea hearing on July 7, she said she had no intention of committing a crime and had acted unintentionally because she packed for Moscow in a hurry.

US President Joe Biden and secretary of state Antony Blinken said they were doing all they could to win the release of Griner and other Americans the US considers “wrongly detained” by Russia, including former marine Paul Whelan.

But a senior Russian diplomat has said no action can be taken by Moscow until the trial is over.

Russian media has speculated 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 organisation.

However, a Kremlin spokesman said on Thursday “We never comment on prisoner exchanges.”

Griner’s detention has been authorised until December 20.

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