Above: Brittney Griner being placed in the defendant’s cage in a Russian court Friday
Basketball star Brittney Griner’s trial on drug charges in Russia continued this week with her defense presenting medical and character evidence.
Griner has pleaded guilty to possessing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil, which is illegal in Russia, but her lawyers are bringing forth evidence that they hope will result in a lighter sentence than the 10-year maximum possible under Russian law, CNN reports.
Griner, 31, center for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, was arrested in February at an airport near Moscow. She was planning to play for a Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, during the WNBA’s off-season. Many WNBA athletes play for overseas teams in the off-season to supplement their income.
In court Friday, Griner’s lawyers presented a permit showing she was prescribed cannabis for medical purposes — as a treatment for chronic pain. Griner has also said she packed the vape cartridges by accident. In a session Thursday, Evgeniya Belyakova, captain of UMMC Ekaterinburg, and Maksim Ryabkov, the team’s director, testified as character witnesses for Griner. The trial will resume July 26.
“Yesterday was quite an emotional day for her,” attorney Alexander Boykov told reporters after Friday’s hearing, CNN reports. “She saw her general manager, her friend, and teammate Evgeniya Belyakova for the first time in many months. And now she just wants to take a rest.”
The legal team also released a statement saying, “The defense today provided written evidence, including character support material, medical records, and tax returns. Among the medical documents is a doctor’s prescription for the substance that, due to an oversight, Brittney Griner left among her belongings when crossing the border. Among the character support documents are numerous letters of thanks from various organizations in Yekaterinburg, as well as letters from the US Basketball Associations, UMMC Ekaterinburg and the Russian Basketball Federation.”
Griner’s arrest and detention have drawn outcry in the U.S. and around the world. She has appealed directly to President Joe Biden to help her and other American prisoners in Russia, and Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have spoken to Griner’s wife, Cherelle, Griner, to assure her they are working on the matter. The State Department has decreed that the basketball star is being “wrongfully detained.”
Elizabeth Rood, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, issued this statement to the media: “I will only say that in the hearings yesterday and today, what became very clear is the tremendous amount of respect and admiration both in the United States and here in Russia where Ms. Griner has been playing basketball for seven years, not only for her professional achievements, but for her character and integrity.” Rood said the U.S. government is working hard for the freedom of Griner and others who have been wrongfully detained.
The possibility has been raised that Griner could be freed in a prisoner exchange, but Russian officials have said there will be no negotiations about that until her trial is over, The Washington Post reports. Russian leaders have also said public pressure will not influence the outcome.