American basketball star Brittney Griner returned to a Russian court Thursday, days after pleading guilty to drug possession charges that could result in a 10-year prison sentence.
Griner's coach as well as a fellow player from the Russian basketball team she played for testified Thursday in support of her character, calling her a "good teammate" and saying she has played "a big role" in the success of women's basketball in the country.
The next session of the trial – during which Griner is expected to testify, NBC News reported – is set for Friday.
Guilty pleas are common in Russia, where virtually all trials result in guilty verdicts anyway. Evidence is being presented before sentencing, which her lawyers say could happen in the next few weeks. The U.S. government is facing mounting pressure to secure her release, an effort likely made difficult amid tensions fueled by Russia's invasion of and ongoing war with Ukraine.
Griner, who plays basketball for a Russian team during the WNBA's off-season, was detained at a Moscow airport about a week before Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February. Russian authorities say they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. Her lawyers say she had hurriedly packed and mistakenly included the canisters in a suitcase.
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►A European Union economic forecast Thursday showed that Russia’s war in Ukraine is expected to stymie economic recovery in the EU for the foreseeable future, and there are predictions of lower annual growth and record-high inflation.
►Ukrainian military deaths and material losses are not disclosed so that Russia can't use the information for military gain, Deputy Defense Minister Anna Malyar said Thursday.
►French President Emmanuel Macron urged citizens to start cutting back energy use now, warning that Moscow will curtail oil and gas deliveries to the West as "a weapon of war."
►The Russian-occupied Zaporizhia province will hold a referendum on joining the Russian Federation in early autumn, the head of the military administration said.
Death toll rises to 23 in Russian missile attack on city
Russian missiles smashed through the heart of the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia on Thursday, killing at least 23 people, wounding 100 more and destroying residential and commercial buildings, Ukraine authorities said. Ihor Klymenko, head of the National Police, said authorities blocked off the area to conduct rescues, collect evidence of Russian war crimes and keep out looters. The strikes damaged more than 50 buildings, including a hospital, and over 40 vehicles, he said.
"A cynical, cruel and insidious crime that has no excuse," Klymenko said in a Facebook post.
The missiles were launched from a submarine in the Black Sea, he said. Vinnytsia, home to 370,000 people, is about 100 miles southwest of the capital Kyiv and far from the eastern Donbas region that has been the primary target of Russian military advances.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said at least one small child was among the victims.
"Every day Russia destroys civilians, kills Ukrainian children and directs missiles at civilian targets where there is nothing military," he said. "What is this, if not an open terrorist act? Inhuman. Killer country. A terrorist country."
Ukraine seeks 'special tribunal' for Putin, other Russian leaders
President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking Russian political and military leaders should face a special tribunal for war crimes committed, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba said Thursday. Creation of the tribunal is necessary because existing international institutions face structural obstacles in investigating the crime of aggression, Kuleba said.
"I will make it extremely clear – Ukraine accuses Russia of committing the crime of aggression," he said in a speech at the Ukraine Accountability Conference. "Together with other states, organizations and institutions, we will use all available tools to achieve justice for the thousands of innocent victims of these crimes, and we will not rest until the perpetrators are brought to justice."
Other virtual speakers include Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, European Union foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Most Ukrainian refugees plan on returning
The majority of Ukrainians who fled the war to other countries plan to return, but around two-thirds said they plan to stay in their host countries until hostilities subside, according to a new survey by the United Nation's refugee agency. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees surveyed nearly 5,000 refugees now living in the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Republic of Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovakia between May and June.
About 16% said they plan to return to Ukraine within the next two months, a fraction of whom said they were planning to go temporarily to see family, get supplies or help loved ones evacuate.
"One thing that nearly all participants had in common was a shared uncertainty about the future, which prevented them from making long-term plans," the UNHCR said in its report.
UN calls Russia-Ukraine meeting on grain crisis 'a critical step forward'
The United Nations chief said a Wednesday meeting in Istanbul between Russia and Ukraine took “a critical step forward” in addressing the blocked export of grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said “more technical work will now be needed” to reach an agreement, “but the momentum is clear … I’m encouraged, but it’s not yet fully done.”
The Russian blockage of millions of tons of grain from being exported from Ukraine has led to food shortages in Africa and Asia. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil.
The negotiations Wednesday led to agreements that include establishing a coordination center in Istanbul, "joint control" of exit and arrival points and the maintained safety of transfer routes, according to a statement from Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.
Speaking to The Associated Press ahead of the talks, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said any agreement needs to ensure Russia "will respect these corridors, they will not sneak into the harbor and attack ports or that they will not attack ports from the air with their missiles."
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine live updates: Brittney Griner to testify, could get 10 years