Russian basketball boss defends Brittney Griner in drugs trial

KHIMKI, Russia (Reuters) -A Russian basketball club director gave evidence in support of U.S. Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star Brittney Griner on Thursday in her third appearance in a Russian court on drugs charges carrying a possible jail sentence of up to 10 years.

Griner, the two-time Olympic gold medalist who has played in Russia during offseasons since 2014, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 after vape cartridges containing hashish oil were allegedly found in her baggage.

The United States has categorized her as “a wrongful detainee”. Her case comes at a time when ties between Washington and Moscow are at their worst in decades over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Defence lawyer Maria Blagovolina said UMMC Ekaterinburg club boss Maxim Ryabkov testified on Thursday to Griner’s good character during the hearing, which was closed to reporters.

Blagovolina said Ryabkov spoke of Griner’s “outstanding abilities as a player and personal contribution to strengthening team spirit.”

Team captain Yevgenia Belyakova also testified in Griner’s defence at the court in Khimki, on the outskirts of Moscow, where Griner had earlier arrived under guard and in handcuffs.

Blagovolina, of law firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners, said the defence was pleased with the latest session.

“It was an extremely emotional day for Brittney, who was touched by the appearance of the club director, head physician and her teammate, who gave an extremely positive description of our client both personally and professionally,” she told Reuters.

At a hearing last week Griner pled guilty to the drug charges but said she had not intended to break the law. A spokesman for Griner’s defence team said she would be back in court on Friday.

Elizabeth Rood, charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and other U.S. officials attended Griner’s trial Thursday and were able to speak to her in the courtroom, according to a State Department spokesperson.

“She is doing as well as can be expected in these difficult circumstances,” the spokesperson said, and confirmed that Thursday’s hearing included testimony from a fellow player and management of her Russian basketball team.

“Ms. Griner told the State Department officials that she appreciated their presence,” the spokesperson said, adding that Friday’s hearing was planned to start at 10 a.m. local time.

Russian authorities do not consider Griner’s detention illegal and say the case against her is not political despite Moscow’s fraught relations with the United States.

Amid suggestions that Griner could be exchanged for a Russian citizen jailed in the United States, a Russian deputy foreign minister said last week that the “hype” surrounding her case was not helpful.

(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, Reporting by Reuters; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Josie Kao)