KHIMKI, Russia –
A Russian judge on Thursday found American basketball star Brittney Griner guilty of drug possession and trafficking and sentenced her to nine years in prison.
Judge Anna Sotnikova said the time Griner has spent in custody since his arrest in February would count towards the sentence.
Griner reacted to the sentence with little emotion. She listened to the verdict from the defendant’s cage, a blank look on her face.
While recapping the evidence and giving her findings on Thursday, the judge said Griner, 31, smuggled drugs into Russia.
Before the unusually quick verdict was announced, Griner made one final appeal to the court. She said she had no intention of breaking the law by bringing vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil into the country when she flew to Moscow in February to play basketball in the city. from Yekaterinburg.
Attention is now turning to the possibility of a high-stakes prisoner swap that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has proposed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Under the proposed deal, Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia for espionage, would be released.
Russian officials have remained unmoved about a possible deal and chafed at US statements on the matter, saying a possible deal should be discussed through “quiet diplomacy without disclosing speculative information.”
US President Joe Biden issued a statement on the verdict that called Griner “wrongfully detained,” a designation Russian officials bristled at.
“Today, US citizen Brittney Griner was sentenced to a prison term that is yet another reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. This is unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with his wife, loved ones, friends and teammates,” Biden said.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s previous story follows below.
American basketball star Brittney Griner smuggled drugs into Russia, her trial judge ruled on Thursday in her case that has reached the highest levels of US-Russian diplomacy.
Judge Anna Sotnikova’s statement, before she announced a verdict, appeared to herald Griner’s impending conviction for possession and smuggling of cannabis oil.
A prosecutor asked that she be sentenced to 9 and a half years in prison.
Earlier in the session, with almost certain conviction, an emotional Griner made a final appeal to the court for clemency. She said she had no intention of breaking the law by bringing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil 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 (of Yekaterinburg) for the mistake I made and the embarrassment I caused them,” Griner said. , voice broken. “I also want to apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing wife at home.”
Under Russian law, Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in prison, but judges have considerable latitude in sentencing.
If she is not released, attention will turn to the possibility of a high-stakes prisoner swap that was proposed last week by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to his Russian counterpart.
Griner said she made “an honest mistake” in introducing vape cartridges to Russia, adding, “I hope your decision doesn’t end my life.”
Griner said Yekaterinburg, a city east of the Ural Mountains, had become his “second home”.
“I had no idea that the team, the cities, the fans, my teammates would make such a good impression on me in the 6½ years I’ve been here,” she said. “I vividly remember coming out of the gymnasium and all the little girls that were in the stands waiting for me, and that’s what made me come back here.”
Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko insisted that Griner deliberately packaged the cannabis oil and he asked the court to fine Briner 1 million rubles (about $16,700) in addition to the prison sentence. .
Attorneys for center Phoenix Mercury and two-time Olympic gold medalist sought to bolster Griner’s claim that she had no criminal intent and that the cartridges ended up in her luggage by mistake. They presented character witnesses from the Yekaterinburg team she plays for during the WNBA offseason and written testimony from a doctor who said he prescribed her cannabis for the treatment of pain from injuries sustained. during his basketball career.
His attorney, Maria Blagovolina, argued that Griner only used cannabis in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal.
She pointed out that Griner was hastily packing after a grueling flight and suffering the consequences of COVID-19. Blagovolina also pointed out that the analysis of the cannabis found in Griner’s possession was flawed and violated legal procedures.
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 defense attorney, Alexander Boykov, highlighted Griner’s role in leading his Yekaterinburg team to multiple championships, noting that she was loved and admired by her teammates. He told the judge that a conviction would undermine Russia’s efforts to develop domestic sports and render Moscow’s call to depoliticize sports shallow.
Boykov added that even after her arrest, Griner won the sympathy of her guards and prison inmates, who supported her by shouting, “Brittney, you’ll be fine!” when she took walks in the prison.
Before her trial began in July, the State Department designated her as “wrongfully detained”, placing her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the chief negotiator of the government for the hostages.
Then last week, in an extraordinary move, Blinken spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia for espionage, would be freed. .
The Lavrov-Blinken call marked the highest level of contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops to Ukraine more than five months ago. Direct outreach on Griner is at odds with 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. This underscores the public pressure the White House faced to secure Griner’s release.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday that Russia responded in “bad faith” to the US government’s offer, a counter-offer that US officials do not consider serious. She declined to elaborate.
Russian officials scoffed at US statements on the case, saying they showed disrespect for Russian law. They remained unmoved, urging Washington to discuss the issue through “quiet diplomacy without disclosing speculative information.”