Ukraine News: Russian strike on central Ukrainian town kills at least 23

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Defense witnesses praised the athletic prowess and character of Brittney Griner on Thursday in a courtroom outside Moscow, where the American basketball star – now one of the most famous prisoners in the world – faces a 10-year prison sentence for drug trafficking.

Maksim Ryabkov, the manager of UMMC Yekaterinburg, the Russian professional team for which Ms Griner played, testified to her “exceptional abilities as a player and her personal contribution to strengthening the spirit of the team”. , said Ms Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners.

Ms Griner’s trial resumed a week after she pleaded guilty to drug charges. Russian authorities accused her of having a vape cartridge containing hash oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow on February 17, where she had traveled to play with UMMC Yekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason. . In the Russian justice system, trials continue even when defendants plead guilty, but Ms Griner’s lawyers said they hoped her plea would make the court more lenient.

The trial was to continue on Friday.

The harshest outcome – a 10-year sentence in a penal colony – remains a possibility even after Ms Griner’s lawyers argued she packed the smoking cartridges by mistake.

Despite pressure on the United States to reach a deal to free her, possibly through a prisoner swap, Russian officials stressed that no negotiations could take place until the procedure was completed. was not over and downplayed the possibility of an imminent resolution of Ms. Griner’s case.

Asked about the possibility of an exchange of prisoners, Dmitry S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, declared Thursday: “We never discuss questions of exchanges”.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria V. Zakharova reiterated that any negotiations around Ms Griner must be done outside the spotlight. She added that such talks could only bear fruit after a verdict was reached in her case, and urged US officials “to abandon futile attempts to pressure us”, the agency reported. press releases.

“Griner’s trial is continuing, and until it concludes, it is generally premature to discuss options for his return home,” Ms. Zakharova said.

Ms Griner, 31, one of the WNBA’s brightest stars and a two-time Olympic gold medalist with the USA women’s basketball team, has found herself caught up in Washington’s increasingly acrimonious relationship with Moscow in the midst of the war in Ukraine.

With legal experts saying a guilty verdict is almost a foregone conclusion in a justice system that heavily favors the prosecution, Ms Griner’s chances of freedom could hinge on the ability of US officials to negotiate her release or the possibility of obtain clemency after a verdict. is reached.

His best hope, experts say, is for the Biden administration to make a switch by releasing a Russian imprisoned in the United States. Russian media linked his case to Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer known as the ‘Dealer of Death’, who is serving a 25-year federal sentence in Illinois for conspiring to sell weapons to people who said they planned to kill Americans.

Amid criticism that Washington is not doing enough to secure her release, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has vowed the US government will not back down until Ms Griner and other ‘wrongfully detained Americans’ are released. not taken home.

The case is also linked to issues of race, gender and sexuality. Ms Griner is black and openly gay, and her many supporters fear her chances of a fair trial are even lower in Russia, a country where gay people routinely face discrimination.

American basketball superstar LeBron James recently appeared to criticize the US government’s efforts to bring Ms Griner home. “Now how can she feel like America has her back?” Mr James said in a trailer for an episode of his TV show, ‘The Shop: Uninterrupted’. “I would be like, ‘Do I even want to go back to America? “” After facing a backlash, he clarified in a tweet tuesday that it “did not hit our beautiful country”.