Basketball star Brittney Griner sentenced to 9 years in Russian prison for drug possession

American basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted in Russia on Thursday of drug possession and sentenced to nine years in prison after a politically charged trial that took place amid escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine and could lead to a prisoner exchange between the two worlds. authorizations.

Griner, 31, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, listened with a blank expression as an interpreter translated Judge Anna Sotnikova’s verdict. The judge also imposed a fine of 1 million rubles (about $21,000).

US President Joe Biden denounced the sentence and sentence as “unacceptable”.

“I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates,” Biden said, adding that he would continue to work to save Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia. to take home. an espionage conviction.

Earlier in the hearing, an emotional Griner made a final appeal to the court for leniency. She said she had no intention of breaking the law by carrying cannabis oil vape cartridges when she flew to Moscow in February to play basketball in the city of Yekaterinburg.

“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city [Yekaterinburg] for my mistake I made and the shame I brought upon them,” Griner said in a cracking voice. “I also want to apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization at home, the wonderful women of the WNBA, and my wonderful husband back home.”

Griner, background center, listens to the verdict from behind bars. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Pool photo via AP)

Attention will now turn to the possibility of a high-stakes prisoner swap proposed last week by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to his Russian counterpart.

Griner said she made “an honest mistake” by bringing the vape cartridges to Russia, adding: “I hope your statement doesn’t end my life.”

Griner said that Yekaterinburg, a city east of the Ural Mountains, had become her “second home.”

“I had no idea that the team, the cities, the fans, my teammates would make such a great impression on me in the 6 1/2 years I’ve spent here,” she said. “I vividly remember coming out of the gym and all the little girls waiting for me in the stands there, and that kept me coming back here.”

Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko insisted that Griner intentionally packed the cannabis oil.

Griner’s lawyers have tried to back up her claim that she had no criminal intent and that the jerry cans ended up in her luggage by accident. They presented character witnesses from the Yekaterinburg team she plays for in the WNBA off-season and written testimony from a doctor who said he prescribed her cannabis for pain treatment from injuries she sustained during her basketball career.

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Her attorney, Maria Blagovolina, argued that Griner only used the cannabis in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal.

She emphasized that Griner was rushing to pack after a grueling flight and was suffering the effects of COVID-19. Blagovolina also pointed out that the analysis of cannabis found in Griner’s possession was flawed and inconsistent with legal process.

Blagovolina asked the court to acquit Griner, noting that she had no criminal record and praising her role in “the development of Russian basketball.”

Another lawyer, Alexander Boykov, highlighted Griner’s role in winning multiple championships with her Yekaterinburg team, noting that she was loved and admired by her teammates. He told the judge that a conviction would undermine Russia’s efforts to develop national sports and that Moscow’s call to depoliticize sports would sound superficial.

Boykov added that even after her arrest, Griner won the sympathy of both her guards and inmates, who supported her by shouting, “Brittney, everything will be fine!” when she went for a walk in prison.

Possible prisoner swap

Before her trial began in July, the US State Department labeled her “unjustly detained” and placed her case under the oversight of the Presidential Special Envoy to Hostage Hostage, effectively the government’s chief negotiator.

Last week, Blinken spoke in an extraordinary manner with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal that would see Griner and Paul Whelan, another imprisoned American.

The Lavrov-Blinken call marked the highest known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops to Ukraine more than five months ago. The direct reach over Griner runs counter to US efforts to isolate the Kremlin.

People familiar with the proposal say it plans to trade Griner and Whelan for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a prison sentence in the United States. It underscores the public pressure the White House has faced to get Griner released.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday that Russia has responded “in bad faith” to the US government’s offer, a counter-offer US officials do not consider serious. She declined to elaborate.

Russian officials scoffed at US statements about the case, saying they show no respect for Russian law. They continued to play poker, urging Washington to discuss the matter through “quiet diplomacy without disclosing speculative information.”

Calls from US to bring Griner home

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released a joint statement calling for Griner’s safe return home.

“Today’s verdict and sentencing are unwarranted and unfortunate, but not unexpected, and Brittney Griner remains unjustly detained. The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and we hope we are nearing the end of this process to finally reach BG home in the United States.”

Elizabeth Rood, the US embassy chargé d’affaires, attended the trial in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, where the airport is located, and said US officials are closely monitoring her case, as well as those of all US citizens detained or incarcerated. sit in prison. in Russia.

At the ESPY Awards last month, football player Megan Rapinoe referred to Griner as “a political prisoner,” and tennis player Billie Jean King said, “First, bring BG home. You must.’

NBA Finals MVP Stephen Curry wore Griner’s jersey under his tracksuit at the awards ceremony and urged the entire global sports community to continue to energize on her behalf. She is one of us, the team of athletes in this room tonight and around the world. world. A team that has nothing to do with politics or global conflict.”

A 6-foot-9 center, Griner has 12 of 15 regular-season dunks in WNBA history, setting the one-year record for blocks with 129 in 2014. She led the league by scoring twice. She was a two-time Associated Press Basketball Player of the Year and led Baylor to a 40-0 season and the 2012 NCAA title. She was Phoenix’s No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft.

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