Russian teammate, GM support Griner in court

    T.J. Quinn joined ESPN in November 2007 as an investigative reporter for ESPN’s Enterprise Unit, which is charged with developing long-form, investigative features to be presented across multiple platforms.

Two members of Brittney Griner’s Russian club team appeared as character witnesses in her trial Thursday, telling the judge that she has been an exemplary player and citizen during her six seasons in Russia.

UMMC Ekaterinburg teammate Yevgenia Belyakova and Maxim Ryabkov, the team’s general manager, spoke during the brief afternoon court session while Griner sat in the defendants’ cage not far away. Their appearance is believed to be the first in-person contact Griner has had with anyone she knows — other than the Russian attorneys hired for her case — since she was arrested Feb. 17 and charged with trying to smuggle drugs into the country.

“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 Ekaterinburg club and Russian women’s basketball as a whole,” 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.”

Said Belyakova: “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.”

Griner has already pleaded guilty, telling the judge last week that she inadvertently brought vape cartridges with hashish oil into the country and did not intend to break the law. In Russian criminal trials, however, the proceedings continue even after a guilty plea, as the judge reads the prosecutors’ case into the record.

She is expected back in court Friday, when the proceedings might be less nurturing for her. The judge is expected to directly interrogate Griner, a common practice in Russian trials.

Tom Firestone, the former resident legal adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said he expects Griner will repeat what she said when she pleaded last week. Firestone said prosecutors and defense attorneys are permitted to ask “clarifying questions” during the interrogation.

Her lawyers have said they expect the case to last until at least early August, and defense lawyer Maria Blagovolina told Reuters she was pleased with how Thursday’s session went.

“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,” Blagovolina said.

U.S. officials and experts have said they consider the trial to be “theater” that could only have ended in a guilty verdict, as Russia seeks to trade her in either a prisoner swap or for some other concession from the United States. Sources close to Griner have described her guilty plea as a tactic, knowing that Russia would require an admission of guilt before agreeing to a negotiated release.

Russian officials have bristled at American calls for Griner’s release, saying her legal case must be completed before any discussions.

Asked about the possibility of Griner being swapped for a Russian jailed in the U.S., Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the senior Russian diplomat, has noted that until her trial is over “there are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps.”

Ryabkov warned that U.S. criticism, including the description of Griner as wrongfully detained and dismissive comments about the Russian judicial system, “makes it difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges.”

Sources have said that former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has been conducting negotiations for her release, in parallel to the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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