Brittney Griner's Russian teammates testified at her drug trial Thursday
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In Russia, the trial of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner on drug smuggling charges resumed today. It was Griner's first hearing since she pleaded guilty last week to charges that could mean a prison term of 10 years. From Moscow, NPR's Charles Maynes was at the courthouse and has this report.
CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: During Brittney Griner's last hearing, the WNBA star admitted she accidentally left vape cartridges containing hash oil in her bags as she arrived in Moscow for offseason play last February. But today, Griner didn't testify. Instead, it was a chance to hear from those in Russia who knew Griner best.
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MAXIM RYABKOV: (Speaking Russian).
MAYNES: Maxim Ryabkov, who runs Griner's Russian team UMMC in the city of Ekaterinburg, took the stand as a witness in her defense. He described recruiting a basketball prodigy to come play in a far off land back in 2014 and the impact it had on both of them. Brittney liked Russia, and she came to help us, said Ryabkov. And Griner, he said, was an irreplaceable part of the team's success, not only winning championships at home but in Europe and winning over Russians to the game of women's basketball, as he told NPR in an interview after the hearing.
RYABKOV: Russian people, Russian fans love her because of her being the sportsman and the personality that she is.
MAYNES: UMMC captain and former WNBA player Evgenia Belyakova also testified.
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EVGENIA BELYAKOVA: (Speaking Russian).
MAYNES: She described Griner as the heart of their team and an active presence off the court, joining teammates for meet and greets with Russian kids and even supporting Ekaterinburg's local animal shelter.
BELYAKOVA: Our team is our family. It's like, bad things happen to all of us, and it's very important to be with this person. So we need her. She needs us. And that's it.
MAYNES: Griner, who listened through an interpreter as she sat in a locked cage in the courtroom, was clearly moved by her friend's testimony, a fact that, in turn, clearly moved them. Again, UMMC's Maxim Ryabkov.
RYABKOV: It is maybe the first time in seven years when I saw her crying. And I cannot understand how hard it is for her, the recent five months. And I really hope she will fight through it.
MAYNES: Ryabkov said UMMC had been quietly playing a role in Griner's legal defense and lobbying for her outside the media spotlight.
RYABKOV: We're very careful in speaking in order to escape any harm to her.
MAYNES: Griner's arrest and trial has unfolded against the backdrop of cratering U.S.-Russian relations over the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine. Yet even as the White House has labeled Griner wrongfully detained and face growing public pressure to bring her home, Russia has suggested a prisoner swap might be in the offing. But Russia's foreign ministry today said that would only happen behind closed doors and only after the trial had run its course. Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.
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