Russian prosecutors asked a court outside Moscow to sentence Brittney Griner to 9.5 years in prison as the American basketball star neared the end of her trial on drug charges on Thursday.
The court was hearing closing arguments before a verdict that could pave the way for a high-risk prisoner exchange between the United States and Russia.
Griner had faced a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison after pleading guilty last month in a lengthy trial that has underscored the two countries’ strained relations since the invasion of Ukraine.
Griner, 31, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Russian authorities said they found vapor containers of cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, admitted the canisters were hers. She said she took them to Russia on purpose.
One of her lawyers, Alexander Boykov, told reporters during the trial that Griner was in a hurry to pack and that the vapor cartridges ended up in her luggage by accident.
On Thursday, Griner was led into a cage in the courtroom in handcuffs, wearing an olive-colored shirt. Before the proceedings began, she showed a photo of her teammates from the Russian club she played for in the WNBA in the offseason.
Prosecutors sought 9 1/2 years in prison for Griner and a fine of one million rubles ($16,590), considering her guilt fully proven, but Maria Blagovolina’s lawyer called that “nonsense.”
Her defense team disputed some of the expert analysis used in the case and said Griner did not have proper access to an interpreter during her arrest. They also highlighted Griner’s many sporting achievements, including in Russia. Her lawyers reiterated that Griner has only used cannabis for medical purposes and has never used it in Russia. They asked that Griner be acquitted or receive a more lenient sentence.
In previous hearings, Her defense team argued that, like many other international athletes, the 6-foot-6 Houston native, who plays for Russia’s Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company Ekaterinburg in the offseason, uses medical marijuana to help with injury pain.
Griner’s legal team also tried to build her defense on her image as a role model and her positive contributions to world and Russian basketball.
The Kremlin has been accused of using Griner as a political pawn, while the Biden administration has come under increasing pressure from her family and allies to secure her release.
The US government has offered Moscow the release of Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence for espionage, in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre he told reporters Monday that Russia responded in “bad faith” to the US government’s offer with one of its own. “We don’t see it as a serious counteroffer,” he said.
Foreign Secretary Antony Blinken talk to me His Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, last week – the highest-level diplomatic engagement between Washington and Moscow since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February – to urge the Kremlin to accept the US offer. Blinken called it a “frank and direct conversation,” but declined to qualify Lavrov’s response.
The Russians he responded urging the US to refrain from speculation and pursue “quiet diplomacy”.
Former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, who was released from a Russian prison in April, previously said he believed the White House did not do enough to help free Griner and Whelan.
In May, the State Department reclassified Griner as an “unlawful detainer” and assigned oversight of her case to the State Department’s presidential envoy for hostage affairs. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that Griner was being held hostage.
President Joe Biden spoke with Griner’s wife, Cheryl Griner, last month. She also sent a letter directly to Griner after sending him a handwritten note pleading for help to free her.