Brittney Griner: WNBA star sentenced to 9 years in prison in Russia for drug trafficking

Khimki City Court Judge Anna Sotnikova handed down the sentence and fined Griner 1 million rubles, or about $16,400. She said the court took into account Griner’s partial admission of guilt, his remorse for the act, his medical condition and his charitable activities. Prosecutors had asked that she be sentenced to 9.5 years in prison.

“I never wanted to hurt anyone, I never wanted to endanger the Russian people, I never wanted to break the laws here,” Griner said. “I made an honest mistake and I hope in your decision it doesn’t end my life here. I know everyone keeps talking about political pawn and politics but I hope it’s away from this courtroom.

“I want to repeat that I had no intention to break Russian laws. I had no intention. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime,” she added.

After sentencing, Griner told a CNN producer as she left court, “I love my family.”

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The verdict comes about six months after the 31-year-old was arrested at a Moscow airport and charged by Russian prosecutors with attempting to smuggle less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in his luggage. The two-time American Olympic basketball gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug charges last month and said she accidentally packed the drugs while in a hurry.

Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, said in a written statement that they would appeal the decision and criticized the court for ignoring their evidence. They have 10 days to appeal.

“We are very disappointed with the verdict. As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone, regardless of their nationality. The court completely ignored all the defense evidence, and most importantly, the plea of guilt,” they said in the statement. “This contradicts existing legal practice. Given the amount of substance (not to mention the flaws in the expertise) and the plea, the verdict is absolutely unreasonable. We will certainly appeal.”

Speaking in court, Boykov said the average jail term for this type of crime is five years, adding that almost a third of those convicted are granted parole.

Griner “is not doing well today,” said Blagovolina, a partner at law firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners. The defense team hopes Griner can speak to his family next week. Blagovolina added that Griner will return to the detention center where she is being held.

Sentencing comes amid strained US-Russia relations

The harsh sentence comes against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the country’s run-ins with the United States and Europe. The US State Department maintains that Griner is being wrongfully detained, and US officials have proposed a potential prisoner swap with Russia to try to bring her home safely.
Chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Russia, Elizabeth Rood, said the conviction was a “miscarriage of justice” and the US president Joe Biden said the long line was “unacceptable”.
Joe Biden calls Brittney Griner's sentence a

“Today US citizen Brittney Griner was sentenced to a prison term which 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, beloved friends and teammates,” Biden said in a statement.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized the Russian justice system more generally, saying the sentence “highlights our significant concerns about the Russian justice system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own program, using individuals as political pawns”.

He said the United States was working to bring back Griner and Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen detained by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018. “It’s a top priority for me and for the Department,” Blinken said.

It’s now “up to the Russian side” whether Griner’s conviction opens new doors for negotiations of a prisoner exchange, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

“We are always open to having our proposal seriously and positively considered, and if on the Russian side that means they feel more empowered to do so, then so be it,” Kirby told reporters during Thursday’s briefing. to the White House.

Kirby reiterated that the US position remains that it wants Russia “to take the deal on the table because it’s a good deal, it’s fair, and it will help bring Paul and Brittney home.”

CNN national security analyst Steve Hall said the harsh sentence came as no surprise and argued that the Russian legal proceedings were not legitimate.

“It’s all a performance in Russia. There was never any doubt what was going to happen,” he said. “What Vladimir Putin is trying to do is basically raise Ms. Griner’s bargaining price.”

Last week, CNN reported that the Biden administration proposed a prisoner exchange with Russiaoffering to free a convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, in exchange for Griner and Whelan. Russian officials countered the American offermultiple sources familiar with the talks said, but U.S. officials did not accept the request as a legitimate counter-offer.

The Kremlin warned on Tuesday that US “megaphone diplomacy” will not help negotiations for a prisoner swap involving Griner. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow believed the talks should be “low-key”.

Griner’s WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, takes on the Connecticut Sun Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET. The Mercury released a statement calling the verdict a “sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare” of his detention.

“We are inspired every day by the strength of BG and we are strongly committed to keeping her publicly in mind until she is safely back on American soil. We will not allow her to be forgotten. We are BG.”

In a joint statement, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver criticized the verdict and sentence as “unwarranted and unfortunate, but not unexpected.”

“The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to his safe return has not wavered and we hope we are close to completing this process to finally bring BG back to the United States,” they said.

The defense asked for leniency in its closing arguments

The court hearing began Thursday shortly after Griner arrived in handcuffs, escorted by Russian officers to the defendant’s cage. Once untied, she spoke with her legal team, then held up a photo of the UMMC Yekaterinburg basketball team, the Russian team she played for during the WNBA offseason.

In her closing arguments, Blagovolina argued that Griner had never used marijuana in Russia and never intended to do so. She didn’t need to bring the vape cartridges to Russia, the lawyer added. All this confirms the complete lack of intent in his actions, argued Blagovolina.

Examination of substance in Brittney Griner's vape cartridges violated Russian law, defense expert says

Although Griner has used medical marijuana before, it was only at her home in Arizona, rare and only with a doctor’s prescription, she added. She couldn’t have known how strict the laws were in Russia, Blagovolina said.

Boykov also argued that Griner was not given the opportunity to properly review court documents. He said that the Russian constitution guarantees everyone the right to use their mother tongue and the free choice of the language of communication.

Boykov cited a case where a language interpreter provided to Griner flipped through a long document offered by an investigator for translation, then told Griner, “Basically, that means you’re guilty.”

Throughout the trial, Griner’s lawyers presented arguments undermining the prosecution’s case and claiming that his detention was not properly handled after his Feb. 17 arraignment by Sheremetyevo International Airport staff.

His detention, search and arrest were “inappropriate”, Boykov said last week, noting that more details would be revealed during closing arguments.

Facts about US detainees
After being arrested at the airport, Griner was asked to sign documents that she did not understand, she testified. At first, she says, she used Google Translate on her phone, but was later moved to another room where her phone was taken and made to sign more documents.

No attorney was present, Griner testified, and his rights were not explained to him. These rights would include access to a lawyer once detained and the right to know what she was suspected of. According to Russian law, she should have been informed of her rights within three hours of her arrest.

On Tuesday, at the seventh hearing in his case, a defense expert testified that the examination of the substance in Griner’s vaping cartridges did not comply with Russian law. Blagovolina also told CNN that experts on his team had identified “a few flaws” in the machines used to measure the substance.

At trial, Griner testified that she had a medical prescription for medical cannabis and had no intention of smuggling the drug into Russia. After her detention in February, she was tested for drugs and was clean, her lawyers previously said.

“We continue to insist that, indiscreetly, in a hurry, she packed her suitcase and did not pay attention to the fact that substances authorized for use in the United States ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation,” Boykov, of the Moscow Law Center, said.

CNN’s Elizabeth Wolfe, Allie Malloy, Travis Caldwell, Dakin Andone, Kylie Atwood, Evan Perez, Jennifer Hansler, Natasha Bertrand and Frederik Pleitgen contributed to this report.

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