A Russian court on Thursday found American basketball star Brittney Griner guilty of drug charges and sentenced her to nine years in prison, the culmination of a trial that has stirred tensions between Moscow and the United States.
Griner, who has been detained since February, appeared in the courtroom earlier in the day to appeal for leniency, as her attorneys and the prosecution delivered closing arguments.
The Russian prosecutor asked the judge presiding over the case to sentence Griner to nine-and-a-half years.
The guilty verdict, which was handed down around 11 a.m. on the East Coast in the United States, was widely expected and puts Griner’s fate “subject to diplomatic bargaining between Russia and the United States,” as The New York Times put it.
In recent days, Russian and U.S. officials have been discussing a potential prisoner exchange involving Griner and Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.
Last week, the Biden administration made an offer to Russia that would see the release of Bout, Griner, and Paul Whelan, an American who has been detained in Russia on espionage charges since 2018.
Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that Russia had rejected that offer, instead favoring a deal that would secure the release of two Russian prisoners.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that “officials in Moscow have said that a verdict in her trial was a necessary precondition for a possible exchange” for Griner.
Griner, a star for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, was traveling back to Russia on February 17 to complete her season for UMMC Ekaterinburg––for whom she plays during the WNBA’s offseason––when authorities found cannabis oil in her luggage. She was arrested and faced drug charges that carried a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Her detention, which came mere days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has become another tension in the geopolitical strife between Moscow and the west. In May, the U.S. Department of State reclassified as “wrongfully detained.”
Griner pleaded guilty to the charges last month, but insisted that it was not her intention to break the law. Addressing the court on Thursday, she once again appealed for leniency.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city of (Yekaterinburg) for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them,” Griner said, as quoted by the Associated Press, which noted that her voice was “cracking.” “I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home.”
Griner also spoke warmly of her experience playing for Ekaterinburg since 2014.
“I had no idea that the team, the cities, the fans, my teammates would make such a great impression on me over the 6 1/2 years that I spent here,” she said, according to the Associated Press. “I remember vividly coming out of the gym and all the little girls that were in the stands there waiting on me, and that’s what kept making me come back here.”
President Joe Biden has faced growing pressure to secure Griner’s release.
Last month, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Griner’s wife, Cherelle, after Griner sent the president a handwritten letter.
“As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner said in the letter to Biden.
“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American Detainees,” Griner continued. “Please do all you can to bring us home. I voted for the first time in 2020 and I voted for you. I believe in you. I still have so much good to do with my freedom that you can help restore. I miss my wife! I miss my family! I miss my teammates! It kills me to know they are suffering so much right now. I am grateful for whatever you can do at this moment to get me home.”
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