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WNBA's Griner gets support at trial from character witnesses

The surprise plea from the WNBA star and Houston native could be an effort to expedite the court proceedings so any negotiations could move forward.

MOSCOW, Russia — WNBA star Brittney Griner is due back in a Russian court Thursday to resume a trial that was jolted last week when she abruptly pleaded guilty to drug possession charges.

Griner's surprise guilty plea came after more than five months in a Moscow jail cell but in Russia’s judicial system, admitting guilt doesn’t automatically end a trial.

the head of the Russian club the Houston native plays for in the offseason and a teammate from that squad testified in support of her character and what the WNBA star has meant for women's basketball in the country.

Most journalists were denied access to Thursday’s session, but the director of UMMC Ekaterinburg, for which she plays during the WNBA offseason, told reporters afterward that he testified as a character witness.

“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 Ektaerinburg club and Russian women’s basketball as a whole,” club director Maxim Rybakov.

“Today is the first day when we have seen our basketball player since February. Thank God, she feels well, looks good,” Rybakov said outside the courthouse in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, where the airport is located.

Player Evgenia Belyakova said she testified 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,” Belyakova added. "I was very happy to see her, and I hope this trial will be over soon and with a positive outcome.”

Also in court were Elizabeth Rood, charge d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, and other consular officials, and they were able to speak to Griner, who told them she appreciated their presence, the U.S. State Department said.

The trial's next session is set for Friday.

Griner was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after vape canisters with cannabis oil allegedly were found in her luggage. She faces up to 10 years in prison.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said they were doing all they could to win her release, as well as that of other Americans the U.S. considers “wrongly detained” by Russia, including former Marine Paul Whelan.

Washington may have little leverage with Moscow, though, because of strong animosity over its military operation in Ukraine.

Russian media have speculated that Griner could be swapped for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

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