Brittney Griner trial: Russia warns of US pressure in case


RIGA, Latvia — Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday warned Washington not to pressure Moscow over the prisoner swap, hours before American WNBA star Brittney Griner arrived at a suburban court to face a third hearing in her trial over drug charges, at which she could serve 10 years in prison.

Griner did not testify at Thursday’s hearing, but her legal team called colleagues from UMMC Ekaterinburg — the basketball team she plays for during the WNBA offseason — as character witnesses in her defense. Last week, she pleaded guilty to carrying 0.702 grams of cannabis oil in two e-cigarette cartridges that authorities found in her luggage before a flight.

Maxim Ryabkov, director of the UMMC Ekaterinburg, said after his testimony that he answered questions from the judge and the prosecutor.

“Today our task was to report to the court about her as an athlete and as a person, about her role and contribution to the success of the Yekaterinburg club and Russian women’s basketball as a whole,” he said. It was the first time he’d seen Griner since February, and “thank god she’s fine and looking good,” he added.

Team captain Yevgenia Belyakova described Griner as “a great co-player” who will be greatly missed. “My job here is to support her and be by her side in moments like this,” Belyakova said outside the court. “We miss their energy.”

Journalists were barred from Thursday’s hearing.

Faced with intense pressure on the Biden administration to secure Griner’s release, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that it was “pointless,” claiming that US officials were trying to use the pressure as leverage.

“We urge the US authorities not to take advantage of this sensitive matter affecting the fate of certain individuals and we advise them to stop futile attempts to pressure us,” Zakharova said.

She urged Washington to “work through established channels. There is simply no other way.”

It’s the second warning in eight days from a senior Russian official that pushing Griner’s cause won’t help her. Last week, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov indicated that there were channels for negotiation on the matter, but only after the trial of Griner was completed. He also warned of public “hype” surrounding the case.

Zakharova was answering a question from state-run RIA Novosti about whether talks are underway with Washington over a prisoner swap, amid growing speculation about a possible swap between Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. He is serving 25 years in the United States on conspiracy to sell arms to a foreign terrorist group and conspiracy to murder US citizens.

US Deputy Head of Mission Elizabeth Rood attended the hearing on Thursday but did not comment to the media. The trial will take place again on Friday morning.

Who is Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is spotted in an alleged prisoner swap?

When she pleaded guilty Last week, Griner claimed she had no intention of violating Russian law and was in a hurry to pack as the cartridges accidentally ended up in her luggage.

It is unclear when Griner will be sentenced. Her lawyer Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Moscow law firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin & Partners, said last week that the legal team will ask the judge for a light sentence based on Griner’s guilty plea.

According to the prosecutor’s case, Russian customs officers found the e-cigarette cartridges in her luggage at Sheremetyevo International Airport in February, a week before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Griner was in the country to play for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason.

The State Department says Griner was wrongly arrested by Russia along with another American, one Paul Whelan, a former Marine and national security adviser convicted of espionage who has been in custody since December 2018.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his top priority is to ensure the release of Griner, Whelan and other Americans wrongfully detained abroad.

Asked whether deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow are hurting chances of a prisoner swap, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that he had never discussed prisoner swaps. “And relations have actually deteriorated. That’s all I can say.”

The Kremlin denies that Griner’s trial is political or that she is a hostage, as her US supporters believe.

In April, Moscow traded Navy veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year sentence in Connecticut for drug trafficking. Reed had been in poor health for months. He was sentenced to nine years in Russia after being convicted of assault that endangered the lives of police officers. Reed consistently said he was innocent.

The White House said last week Griner was being held in “intolerable circumstances.” President Biden and Vice President Harris called Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and told her they would do whatever they could to secure Griner’s freedom.

Griner recently wrote to Biden asking him not to forget her and other detainees, saying, “I’m afraid I might be here forever.”

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State Department efforts to free them have been hampered by the diplomatic coldness between Washington and Moscow since President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Russian officials have accused the United States of using Ukraine as an “anti-Russia” project.

In January, as relations deteriorated and diplomatic efforts to avert war failed, the State Department issued a warning to Americans not to travel to Russia and warned those in the country to leave if they could.

Biden’s call to Cherelle Griner and letter to Brittney Griner angered Whelan’s family, who were already upset that he was left behind on April’s prisoner swap and concerned his case wasn’t getting the same attention from officials as Griner’s. After Whelan’s family vented their anger in media interviews, Biden called Whelan’s sister Elizabeth last week.

“Everyone wants this to end across the board,” Elizabeth Whelan said Wednesday, adding that the Russian justice system has dragged out her brother’s case and expressing concern that Griner’s cases are following the same pattern could. “You never know exactly what to expect,” she said.

Her brother had traveled to Moscow for a friend’s wedding and was arrested in his hotel room. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison for espionage in a closed trial in 2020. He said throughout the process that he was set up.

Horton reported from Washington. Brittney Griner trial: Russia warns of US pressure in case

Dustin Huang

Dustin Huang is a 24ssports U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Dustin Huang joined 24ssports in 2021 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing:

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