Russian court sentences US basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in jail

American basketball star Brittney Griner used to be Thursday convicted in Russia for drug possession and sentenced to nine years in prison after a politically charged trial that took place amid mounting tensions between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine and could lead to a high-stakes prisoner exchange between the two world powers.

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 $16,700).

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 team-mates, my club, my fans and the city (Yekaterinburg) for my mistake and the shame I caused 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.” Under Russian law, 31-year-old Griner faces up to 10 years in prison, but judges have great latitude in imposing a sentence.

If she doesn’t go free, attention will 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, and he asked the court to fine Briner 1 million rubles (about $16,700) in addition to jail time.

Attorneys at the Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist have tried to bolster Griner’s 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.

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.

Before her trial began in July, the State Department labeled her “unjustly detained” and moved her case under the supervision of the Presidential Special Envoy for 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 where Griner and Whelan would go free.

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.”

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