Russia: American basketball player 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 opens the way for a possible exchange of prisoners between Moscow and Washington.
Arrested in February in Moscow with a vaporizer containing cannabis-based liquid, shortly before the Russian offensive in Ukraine, the double Olympic champion was caught up in the geopolitical crisis between Russia and the United States.
Her trial has accelerated in recent days as the two countries negotiate a prisoner swap that the player could be part of, with Washington claiming to have recently made a “substantial” offer to Moscow.
“The court found the defendant guilty” of illegal possession and drug trafficking, said judge Anna Sotnikova, according to an AFP journalist present at the Khimki court, near Moscow.
As a result, the basketball player was sentenced to “nine years in prison in a penal colony” and a fine of one million rubles (about 16,000 euros at the current rate), she added.
“This is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release her immediately so that she can be reunited with her wife, relatives and teammates,” urged US President Joe Biden in a statement immediately after the verdict was announced.
Griner’s lawyers have announced their decision to appeal the “completely insane” verdict.
The player listened to the judge’s statement with her face lowered, locked in the cage reserved for the defendants in the courtroom.
– For a vaper –
“I made a mistake in good faith and I hope that the judgment will not end my life here,” Griner pleaded in 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 start of the trial, she has appeared focused, answering the court’s questions calmly and with precision.
Thursday, before the start of the hearing, she held up to reporters a photo of herself surrounded by her basketball teammates in Russia.
The Phoenix Mercury player had come to Russia to play during the American offseason, a common practice for WNBA basketball players who often earn more money abroad than in the United States.
She had been arrested at the airport with cannabis vaping liquid. She admitted having been in possession of this substance, however claiming to have brought it to Russia by mistake.
Above all, she refuted any trafficking, stressing that this small quantity of substance was only for her personal consumption, for analgesic purposes, because she suffers from chronic pain.
“I never meant to hurt anyone, I never meant to endanger the Russian people, or to break the law here,” Griner said Thursday.
On Thursday, the prosecutor assured him that she had knowingly tried to “hide” the cannabis-based liquid from customs officers at the airport.
– Russian arms dealer –
The player’s lawyers had asked for her acquittal
A conviction of the player legally paves the way for a possible prisoner exchange.
Last week, the head of American diplomacy Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had their first discussions since the start of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine.
Blinken said he 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, it would be a question of exchanging a famous Russian arms trafficker detained in the United States, Viktor Bout, against Brittney Griner and Mr. Whelan.
Mr. Bout, arrested in Thailand in 2008 and 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.
Ms Blagovolina, Griner’s lawyer, said on Tuesday that the player’s defense hoped for only one thing: “To be able to go home”.
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