Russia: American basketball player Brittney Griner sentenced to nine years in prison
A Russian court on Thursday sentenced American women’s basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison for drug trafficking, a heavy sentence described as “unacceptable” by Joe Biden, which paves the way for a possible prisoner exchange between Moscow and Washington. Arrested in February in Moscow with a vape containing cannabis-based liquid, shortly before the Russian offensive in Ukraine, the two-time Olympic champion was caught up in the geopolitical crisis between Russia and the United States.
U.S., Russia negotiate prisoner swap
Her trial has accelerated in recent days, while the two countries are negotiating a prisoner exchange of which the player could be part, Washington claiming to have recently made a “substantial” offer to Moscow. “The court found the defendant guilty” of illegal possession and drug trafficking, judge Anna Sotnikova said, according to an AFP journalist present at the court in Khimki, near Moscow.
As a result, the basketball player was sentenced to “nine years in prison in a penal colony” and a million rubles fine (about 16,000 euros at the current rate), she added. “This is unacceptable and I ask Russia to release her immediately so that she can be reunited with her wife, her relatives and her teammates,” US President Joe Biden urged in a statement immediately after the verdict was announced.
The basketball player’s lawyers will appeal
Griner’s lawyers, for their part, announced their decision to appeal this “completely senseless” verdict. The player listened to the judge’s statement with her face down, locked in the cage assigned to the defendants in the courtroom. “I made a mistake in good faith and I hope that the judgment will not end my life here,” Griner had pleaded during his last speech before the statement of the court’s decision.
Aged 31 and measuring 2.06 meters, Griner is considered one of the best basketball players in the world. Since the beginning of the trial, she has appeared focused, answering the court’s questions calmly and accurately. On Thursday, before the start of the hearing, she had held up in front of journalists a photo of herself surrounded by her basketball teammates in Russia.
Griner arrested with cannabis-based vape liquid
The Phoenix Mercury player had come to Russia to play during the American offseason, a common practice for WNBA basketball players who often earn a better living abroad than in the United States. She had been arrested at the airport with cannabis-based vape liquid. She admitted to having been in possession of this substance, claiming, however, to have brought it to Russia by mistake.
Above all, she refuted any trafficking, stressing that this small amount of substance was only for her personal consumption, for analgesic purposes, because she suffers from chronic pain. “I never wanted to hurt anyone, I never intended to put the Russian population at risk, nor to violate the law here,” Griner said on Thursday. On Thursday, the prosecutor assured her that she had knowingly tried to “hide” the cannabis-based liquid from customs officers at the airport. The player’s lawyers had asked for her acquittal. A conviction of the player legally paves the way for a possible exchange of prisoners.
First discussions between Blinken and Lavrov
Last week, US top diplomat Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov held their first talks since the start of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine. Antony Blinken said he had pressed his counterpart to accept Washington’s “substantial offer” to Moscow to secure the release of Griner and another American detained in Russia, Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence for espionage. According to several American media reports, it would be a question of exchanging a famous Russian arms dealer detained in the United States, Viktor Bout, for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.
Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States, is nicknamed the “merchant of death”. His extraordinary career was one of the inspirations for the film “Lord of War” in which Nicolas Cage plays a cynical arms dealer. No agreement has yet been reported and the Kremlin appeared irritated after Washington’s public statements about the negotiations. Maria Blagovolina, Griner’s lawyer, had indicated on Tuesday that the player’s defense hoped for only one thing: “To be able to go home”.
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