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Amid Griner trial, Russia warns U.S. against pressure for prisoner swap

The basketball star’s Russian team colleagues testify as character witnesses at her latest hearing

WNBA star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty last week to carrying 0.702 grams of cannabis oil in two vape cartridges. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

RIGA, Latvia — Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday warned Washington not to exert pressure on Moscow over prisoner exchanges, hours before American WNBA star Brittney Griner arrived at a suburban court to face a third hearing in her trial on drug charges for 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 for which she plays 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 vape cartridges, which authorities found in her luggage before a flight.

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

“Today, our task was to tell the court about her as an athlete and as a person, about her role and contribution to the success of the Ekaterinburg club and Russian women’s basketball on the whole,” he said. It was the first time he’d seen Griner since February, and “thank God, she feels okay and looks good,” he added.

Team captain Yevgenia Belyakova described Griner as “a great co-player” who is missed greatly. “My role here is to support her and be next to her at such moments,” Belyakova said outside of the court. “We miss her energy.”

Journalists were barred from Thursday’s hearing.

Amid intense domestic pressure on the Biden administration to secure Griner’s release, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned that this was “futile” and claimed that U.S. officials were trying to use the pressure as leverage.

“We urge the U.S. authorities not to exploit this sensitive matter affecting the fates of certain individuals, and we advise them to abandon futile attempts to pressure us,” Zakharova said.

She called on Washington to “work through established channels. It simply won’t work any other way.”

It is the second warning in eight days from a senior Russian official that the pressure around Griner’s cause would not help her cause. Last week, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov hinted that there were channels for negotiation on the matter, but only after Griner’s trial has been completed. He also warned against public “hype” over the case.

Zakharova was answering a question from state-owned RIA Novosti on whether talks with Washington on a prisoner exchange were underway, amid rising speculation about a possible swap involving Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. He is serving 25 years in the United States for conspiring to sell arms to a foreign terrorist group and conspiring to kill U.S. citizens.

U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth Rood was at Thursday’s hearing but made no comments to media. The trial will reconvene Friday morning.

Who is Viktor Bout, Russian arms dealer eyed in rumored prisoner swap?

When she pleaded guilty last week, Griner maintained that she had not intended to break Russian law and had been in a rush when she packed, with the cartridges ending up in her luggage by accident.

It is unclear when Griner will be sentenced. Her attorney, Maria Blagovolina, a partner in the Moscow law firm of Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin & Partners, said last week that the legal team would ask the judge for a lenient sentence on the basis of Griner’s admission of guilt.

According to the prosecutors’ case, Russian customs officials found the vape cartridges in her baggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport in February, a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Griner was in the country to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg.

The U.S. State Department says Griner has been wrongly detained by Russia, along with another American, Paul Whelan, a Marine veteran and a security consultant convicted of spying who has been in detention since December 2018.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said his top priority is to secure the release of Griner, Whelan and other Americans he said are wrongly imprisoned overseas.

Asked whether the deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow were hurting the chances of a prisoner exchange, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Russia never discussed prisoner swaps. “And relations have indeed worsened. That’s all I can say.”

The Kremlin denies that Griner’s trial is political or that she is a hostage, as her supporters in the United States say.

In April, Moscow swapped Marine veteran Trevor Reed for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year prison sentence in Connecticut for drug trafficking. Reed had been in poor health for months. He received a nine-year sentence 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 that Griner was being held under “intolerable circumstances.” President Biden and Vice President Harris called Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and told her they were doing all they could to secure Griner’s freedom.

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

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State Department efforts to free her have been complicated by the diplomatic chill between Washington and Moscow since President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian officials accuse the United States of using Ukraine as an “anti-Russia” project.

As relations worsened and diplomatic efforts to avert the war failed, the State Department issued an alert to Americans in January not to travel to Russia and warned those in the country to leave if they could.

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

“Everyone wants to see this come to an end across the board,” Elizabeth Whelan said on Wednesday, adding that the Russian judicial system had dragged out her brother’s case and expressing concern that Griner’s case might follow the same pattern. “You never know quite what to expect,” she said.

Her brother had traveled to Moscow for a friend’s wedding and was arrested in his hotel room. In a closed trial in 2020, he was convicted of spying, receiving a 16-year sentence. He said throughout the trial that he had been framed.

Horton reported from Washington.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

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In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

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