A Russian court on Thursday sentenced American basketball star Brittany Griner to nine years in prison for drug trafficking, as US President Joe Biden called the ruling “unacceptable”. The court “found the defendant guilty of trafficking” and possessing “a significant amount of narcotics”, Judge Anna Sotnikova told a court in the city of Khimki outside Moscow. Sotnikova sentenced Griner, 31, to nine years in prison and said she would also have to pay a fine of one million rubles ($16,590). US President Joe Biden immediately issued a statement, calling Griner’s sentence “unacceptable” by a Russian court.
Biden said in a statement: “Russia is unfairly detaining Brittany. This is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release her immediately so that she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates.” “
The US president reiterated that he would “work tirelessly and do everything possible” to bring Griner back.
Griner’s trial has gained momentum in recent days as the United States and Russia discuss a possible prisoner swap that could involve the basketball star.
The six-foot-nine (2.06 m) star was detained at Moscow airport in February when she was carrying wipe cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage. The arrest comes days before Moscow began military intervention in Ukraine.
Prosecutors had previously requested a nine-and-a-half year prison sentence for the two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist and women’s NBA champion on drug trafficking charges.
Griner’s trial came with rising tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, which sparked international condemnation and a litany of Western sanctions.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope your decision doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said earlier Thursday.
“I want the court to understand that this was an honest mistake that I made while running, under stress, trying to recover from post-Covid and trying to get back into my team.”
Griner pleaded guilty to the charges, but said he did not intend to break the law or use a banned substance in Russia.
His defense team said they were “very disappointed” with the decision and would appeal.
Lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in a statement: “The court completely ignored all defense evidence and most importantly, the guilty plea.”
“The decision is absolutely unfair. We will certainly file an appeal.”
Prosecutor Nikolay Vlasenko had requested a prison sentence of nine years and six months for Griner, with a term less than the maximum sentence requested.
Vlasenko said Griner “deliberately” proceeded through the Green Corridor at customs, adding that he had nothing to declare the substance was “hidden”.
Earlier in the day Griner walked into the courtroom in handcuffs escorted by several law enforcement officers and a police dog.
Standing inside a cage for the defendants before the trial began, she took a picture of herself with mates from the Russian club she plays for.
“Proposal” for a prisoner swap
Griner was detained when she came to Russia during the US off-season to play club basketball with UMMC Yekaterinburg – a common route for American stars looking for extra income.
At a previous hearing, Griner said he was regularly tested by US, Russian and European leagues.
The WNBA star said he had received permission from an American doctor to use medicinal cannabis to relieve the pain of his multiple injuries – “from the spine to the cartilage”.
Her case sparked speculation about a possible prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Washington had made a “substantial offer” to Moscow to free Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, who were jailed for espionage.
A prisoner swap was also discussed during a call between Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Friday.
The most high-profile Russian prisoner in the United States is Viktor Bout, a 55-year-old arms smuggler known as the “Merchant of Death” who is serving a 25-year prison sentence.
There is no official confirmation that Washington has offered to replace him.
Russia and the United States have already conducted a prisoner swap since the start of Moscow’s Ukraine attack.
In April, Washington exchanged former US Marine Trevor Reid for convicted drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko.
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