Brittney Griner's Russian teammate, GM offer character statements in court appearance

Two members of Brittney Griner's Russian club team appeared as character witnesses in her trial Thursday, telling the judge that she has been an exemplary player and citizen during her six seasons in Russia.

UMMC Ekaterinburg teammate Evgeniya Belyakova and Maxim Ryabkov, the team's general manager, spoke during the brief afternoon court session while Griner sat in the defendants' cage not far away. Their appearance is believed to be the first in-person contact Griner has had with anyone she knows -- other than the Russian attorneys hired for her case -- since she was arrested Feb. 17 and charged with trying to smuggle drugs into the country.

"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 Ekaterinburg club and Russian women's basketball as a whole," Ryabkov told reporters outside the courthouse. "Today is the first day when we have seen our basketball player since February. Thank God, she feels well, looks good."

Said Belyakova: "I can say 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. I was very happy to see her, and I hope this trial will be over soon and with a positive outcome."

Griner has already pleaded guilty, telling the judge last week that she inadvertently brought vape cartridges with hashish oil into the country and did not intend to break the law. In Russian criminal trials, however, the proceedings continue even after a guilty plea, as the judge reads the prosecutors' case into the record.

She is expected back in court Friday, when the proceedings might be less nurturing for her. The judge is expected to directly interrogate Griner, a common practice in Russian trials.

Tom Firestone, the former resident legal adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said he expects Griner will repeat what she said when she pleaded last week. Firestone said prosecutors and defense attorneys are permitted to ask "clarifying questions" during the interrogation.

Her lawyers have said they expect the case to last until at least early August, and defense lawyer Maria Blagovolina told Reuters she was pleased with how the Thursday session went.

"It was an extremely emotional day for Brittney, who was touched by the appearance of the club director, head physician and her teammate, who gave an extremely positive description of our client both personally and professionally," Blagovolina said.

Diana Taurasi, Griner's longtime teammate with the Phoenix Mercury, played in Russia for a decade, including with UMMC Ekaterinburg. She said Thursday night that she chatted briefly with Ryabkov.

"I think they have the same sentiment as we do -- wanting BG to come home," Taurasi said of Ryabkov and Belyakova. "For them to go there and talk on behalf of BG, she's been a big part of Russian basketball. She's done a lot for that country, winning EuroLeague titles, representing their country in a lot of ways.

"I chatted with him a little bit today. He said they made eye contact and he saw a smile on BG's face. I'm sure that meant a lot to her for them to be there and to defend her character."

Taurasi said she hopes Ryabkov's and Belyakova's court appearances will help set in motion events that get Griner home as quickly as possible.

"All the other things people are saying doesn't matter," Taurasi said. "How can we get her home? I played 10 years in Russia. You don't speak against the government, you just don't do that. And not only that, they just have a completely different way of looking at life where they might agree with a lot of things. I think sometimes here in the West, you get muddied a little bit and thinking we're always right and they're always wrong, and vice versa. Every country is different. We've just got to get her home as safely and quickly as possible. That's the only thing I care about."

Chicago Sky coach James Wade, who coached at UMMC Ekaterinburg in 2017-18, said he was proud that members of his old club showed up to support Griner.

"It's one thing to hear that from us all the way over here, but to actually hear it from Russian citizens -- how great of a person she was, how much she means to that community -- sometimes we may feel like it's [falling] on deaf ears, but she really is that great of a person," Wade said. "I was just proud that you had Russian people in the Russian language expressing how great she is. Especially in this political climate that everybody's talking about and that is there, they had the courage to actually speak up and go to bat for her because she meant a lot to not only us but to them as well."

U.S. officials and experts have said they consider the trial to be "theater" that could only have ended in a guilty verdict, as Russia seeks to trade her in either a prisoner swap or for some other concession from the United States. Sources close to Griner have described her guilty plea as a tactic, knowing that Russia would require an admission of guilt before agreeing to a negotiated release.

Russian officials have bristled at American calls for Griner's release, saying her legal case must be completed before any discussions.

Asked about the possibility of Griner being swapped for a Russian jailed in the U.S., Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the senior Russian diplomat, has noted that until her trial is over "there are no formal or procedural reasons to talk about any further steps."

Ryabkov warned that U.S. criticism, including the description of Griner as wrongfully detained and dismissive comments about the Russian judicial system, "makes it difficult to engage in detailed discussion of any possible exchanges."

Sources have said that former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has been conducting negotiations for her release, in parallel to the U.S. State Department's Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.

ESPN's Mechelle Voepel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.