Brittney Griner, the American WNBA star imprisoned in Russia since February for drug trafficking, was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on February 17 on her way back to play basketball in Russia, where authorities accused her of having a vape cartridge containing hash oil in her luggage. Griner pleaded guilty to the charges last week, although her lawyers argued she packaged the smoldering cartridges by mistake.
The most severe sentence Griner could have faced was 10 years in a Russian penal colony.
A guilty verdict was taken for granted before his guilty plea. Russia’s justice system strongly favors prosecution, with only 0.25% of all cases sent to court in 2018 resulting in not-guilty verdicts and a gross conviction rate above 99% across all types business.
“We are of course hoping for leniency from the court,” said Maria Blagovolina, the attorney representing Griner, after the guilty plea. “Given all the circumstances of the case, given the character of our client, we believe that the admission of guilt should certainly be taken into account.”
With the US government under pressure at home to do more to secure his freedom, the guilty plea could have been an effort to speed up the legal process so that any negotiations could move forward.
US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said they are doing everything they can to secure the release of Griner, as well as other Americans the US considers ‘wrongfully detained’ by Russia, including former Marine Paul Whelan.
However, Washington may have little influence over Moscow, due to strong animosity over its military operation in Ukraine.
“I’m terrified to be here forever,” Griner wrote in a recent letter to President Biden, adding, “Please don’t forget me.”
In her closing arguments Thursday, Griner said she had no intention of breaking Russian law by taking vaping cartridges containing cannabis oil with her when she flew to Moscow in February.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope your decision doesn’t end my life,” she said.
— With AP files