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15 Jul, 2022 12:20

Griner team mounts defense in Russian drugs case

The US basketball star's trial continued at a court just outside Moscow on Friday
Griner team mounts defense in Russian drugs case

Lawyers representing US women's basketball star Brittney Griner have produced a certificate showing that she was prescribed medical cannabis in 2020 as her drugs trial continued in a court just outside Moscow on Friday. 

Griner has been in Russian detention since February 17 after vape cartridges containing hashish oil were found in her luggage at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport as she was arriving to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA off-season.

Facing up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to the charges last week, Griner began the fourth day of her trial shortly after 10am on Friday at Khimki City Court wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and holding up a photograph of the WNBA All-Stars wearing jerseys with her number 42.

Different to Thursday's hearing, the media were allowed to access the court on Friday.

Presenting evidence, one of Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina, read out a medical certificate which indicated that Griner had been prescribed medical cannabis by American doctors as part of her treatment for chronic pain and other ailments.

As the trial was adjourned again until July 26, Blagovolina explained that Griner's defense team would provide more details on the 31-year-old's medical issues. 

Friday's hearing saw the defense present a series of medical certificates plus the results of anti-doping tests demonstrating that Griner has never been found with traces of banned substances.

Blagovolina explained how Thursday's session, where UMMC Ekaterinburg director Maxim Ryabkov and team captain Evgeniya Belyakova gave character evidence, had been testing for Griner.

"She is very tired, yesterday was a very emotional day for her. It was difficult for her," Blagovolina said.

Rybakov was reported as describing Griner as an "outstanding player" and responsible person.

"Today we saw our basketball player for the first time since February. Thank God, she feels good and looks good too," he remarked afterwards.

"Our task was to tell the court about her characteristics as an athlete and as a person. [And her contributions to] Russian basketball. Thanks to her, we have risen in the Euroleague rankings. We tried to answer the questions that the prosecutor had," Rybakov said.

Teammate Belyakova told reporters: "Brittney has always been a very good teammate, so our role here is first of all to support her and be there for her at such moments.

"We miss her very much, [and] miss her energy. I was glad to see her, [and] I hope that the process will be completed soon and in in a good way," Belyakova added. 

Other points made in Griner's defense were that she has paid significant taxes in Russia and that her UMMC Ekaterinburg contract expired naturally on April 30, rather than being terminated as a reaction to her legal woes.

Griner's legal team expects there to be up to five hearings.

President Joe Biden's administration has classed Griner as wrongfully detained, and the deputy chief of mission at the United States Embassy in Moscow, Elizabeth Rood, claimed that her country remains committed to bringing Griner home. 

"I will only say that in the hearings yesterday and today, what became very clear was the tremendous amount of respect and admiration [for Griner] 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.

While it is unknown when Griner might be sentenced, Russian officials have also been adamant that there will be no discussions on a potential prisoner exchange before the trial has reached its conclusion.

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned US authorities that they shouldn't "exploit this sensitive matter affecting the fates of certain individuals" and advised them to "abandon futile attempts to pressure us."

Zakharova called on American authorities to "work through established channels" and added that the process "simply won’t work any other way."

"When real work is underway, it is not accompanied by this hype in the media, this is just such a classic information campaign. We regret that the United States is going this way, instead of a non-public professional dialogue," Zakharova went on.

Furthermore, Zakharova threw out claims that Griner and her fellow detained American Paul Whelan, an ex-Marine and IT consultant who was convicted of spying and has been in Russian detention since December 2018, are the "victims of arbitrary rule."

"Paul Whelan was convicted of espionage and was caught red-handed, and Griner's trial is ongoing, until the end of which it is generally premature to discuss any options for her return home," Zakharova pointed out.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has also criticized Biden's administration for creating "hype" around Americans that have been convicted in Russia, noting that penning letters to Biden, as Griner already has, won't aid them in their predicament.

Instead, "a serious perception by the American side of the signals that they received from Russia, from Moscow, through specialized сhannels" is needed only after Griner's case has been brought to a close.

Griner wrote to Biden on July 4 revealing fears that she might be in Russian custody "forever". Yet the Kremlin has refused to comment on a potential prisoner exchange and also insists that Griner's detention is not politically-motivated. 

President Vladimir Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov has underlined that Griner is facing legal consequences like anyone else and should not expect preferential treatment just because she is a foreigner.