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 came amid rising tensions between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine and could lead to a high-stakes prisoner swap between the two worlds. 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 $16,000).
“I never wanted to hurt anyone to endanger the Russian population or violate Russian laws. I made an honest mistake and I hope your decision will not end my life here,” he said. Griner told the court earlier Thursday. apologizing to his family, teammates, fans and the Russian people.
“I know everyone keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope it’s away from this courtroom… I hope you consider all the documents, all the lists of characters that everyone sent on my behalf… This is my second home, and all I wanted to do was win championships and make them proud,” she said.
US President Joe Biden has denounced the verdict 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 bring back Griner and Paul Whelan, an American. imprisoned in Russia on a conviction for espionage.
As Griner was taken from court after the verdict, she told reporters, “I love my family.” Her lawyers said she was very upset, stressed and could barely speak.
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 doesn’t break free, attention will turn towhich was proposed last week by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to his Russian counterpart.
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 Whelan would be free.
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 she plans to trade Griner and Whelan for the, 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 refused 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.”
In aof Griner who was delivered to the White House last month, the WNBA player wrote how terrified she was of being imprisoned in Russia “forever.”
Griner’s wife, Cherelle, told “CBS Mornings” that as she read the letter, she could feel the fear Griner felt.
“She’s probably the strongest person I know, so she doesn’t say words like that lightly. It means she’s really terrified that she’ll never see us again. You know, I share the same feelings,” Cherelle said.