December 6, 2023

Russian prosecutors asked a Russian court on Thursday to sentence the American basketball star Brittney Griner to 9 1/2 years in prison for closing arguments in her drug possession trial.

The trial came to a close nearly six months after Griner was arrested at a Moscow airport in a case that has reached the highest levels of US-Russia diplomacy, with Washington proposing a prisoner swap. Under Russian law, Griner, 31, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

Although a conviction seems almost certain, given that Russian courts rarely acquit defendants and Griner has admitted to having vapor cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage, judges have a lot of leeway in sentencing.

“I never intended to harm anyone to endanger the Russian population or violate any Russian law. I made an honest mistake and I hope that your decision, that it will not end my life here,” Griner told the court on Thursday , apologizing. to her family, her teammates, her fans and the Russian people.

“I know everyone keeps talking about political pawns and politics, but I hope that’s a long way from this courtroom… I hope you’ll consider all the documents, all the character lists that everyone has sent on my behalf… This is my second home and all I wanted to do was win championships and make them proud.”

WNBA basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, stands inside a dock before a court hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, August 4, 2022.


Attorneys for the Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist have pursued strategies to bolster Griner’s claim that she had no criminal intent and that the containers ended up in her luggage due to hasty packing. They presented character witnesses from the Russian team she plays for in the WNBA offseason and written testimony from a doctor who said he prescribed cannabis for pain treatment.

An attorney on Griner’s defense team, Maria Blagovolina, argued that Griner brought the cartridges with her to Russia by mistake and only used cannabis as medicine and only while in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal. A prosecutor, Nikolai Vlasenko, argued that Griner packaged the cannabis oil intentionally.

It is unclear when the verdict will be announced. If she doesn’t stay free, attention will turn to the high stakes possibility of exchange of prisoners.

Before her trial began in July, the State Department designated her as “unreasonably detained,” moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.

Then last week, in an extraordinary move, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia for an espionage conviction, they would be released. .

The Lavrov-Blinken call marked the highest known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops to Ukraine more than five months ago. Griner’s direct approach runs counter to US efforts to isolate the Kremlin.

People familiar with the proposal say it envisions trading Griner and Whelan for the notorious arms dealer Victor Booth. It underscores the public pressure the White House has faced to free Griner.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Monday that Russia responded “in bad faith” to the US government’s offer, a counteroffer that US officials do not consider serious. She declined to provide further details.

Russian officials have derided US statements on the case, saying they show disrespect for Russian law. They remained poker-faced, urging Washington to discuss the issue through “quiet diplomacy without disclosure of speculative information.”

In a handwritten letter from Griner handed over to the White House, the WNBA player wrote how terrified she is that she could be jailed in Russia “forever.”

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