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American women’s basket star Brittney Griner, detained in Russia since February, was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian court on Thursday for drug trafficking, after her arrest with a vape containing cannabis liquid.
It was an expected verdict, as Brittney Griner became a diplomatic stake between Washington and Moscow. Detained since February in Russia, the American basketball player was sentenced on Thursday August 4 to 9 years in prison by a Russian court for drug trafficking.
The court in Khimki, a northern suburb of Moscow, found the player guilty of drug possession and trafficking and sentenced her “to nine years in a penal colony”, said judge Anna Sotnikova, according to a correspondent of the AFP on the spot.
The 31-year-old denies any smuggling. Her lawyers announced that she was appealing her conviction.
US President Joe Biden, who designated the sorting of the basketball player as “a priority” in early July, immediately denounced his conviction.
“This is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release her immediately so that she can reunite with her wife, relatives and teammates,” he urged in a statement. “US citizen Brittney Griner has been given a prison sentence that is just one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia wrongfully detains Brittney.”
“I made an honest mistake”
Since her arrest in February at a Moscow airport, a few days before the Russian offensive in Ukraine, Brittney Griner has been immersed in the geopolitical crisis that opposes Russia in 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 saying it recently made a “substantial” offer to Moscow.
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On Thursday, a prosecutor demanded that Griner be “convicted and sentenced to nine and a half years in a conventional (penal) colony.” This is almost the maximum possible requisition for this crime, set at 10 years in prison. The prosecutor also asked to condemn the player to pay a fine of one million rubles (about 16,000 euros at the current rate).
“I made a mistake in good faith and I hope that the judgment will not end my life here”, pleaded the international star of basketball during his last speech, before the withdrawal of the court before the statement of the decision.
Brittney Griner, 2.06 meters, 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.
On Thursday, she once again appeared handcuffed in the courtroom, wearing a gray t-shirt, before being placed in the barred cage reserved for the defendants. Before the start of the hearing, she held up to reporters a photo of herself sent from her basketball teammates in Russia.
Exchange of prisoners under consideration, including a Russian arms dealer
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 traffic, proved that this small quantity of substance was only for her personal consumption, for analgesic purposes, because she suffers from chronic pain like many athletes.
“I never meant to hurt anyone, I never intended to endanger the Russian people, or break the law here,” Brittney Griner said. The prosecutor assured him that she had knowingly tried to “hide” the cannabis-based liquid from customs officials.
The player’s conviction legally paves the way for a possible prisoner swap.
On Friday, 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. Antony 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 spying.
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 Paul Whelan.
Viktor 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 most cynical arms dealer.