A Russian court on Thursday found American basketball star Brittney Griner guilty of an attempt to smuggle illegal narcotics into Russia and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony, according to his lawyers. The verdict ended a closely watched trial that her supporters say made her a pawn in a tense geopolitical showdown over the war in Ukraine.
The verdict, virtually predetermined in a legal system in which defendants are rarely acquitted, leaves Ms Griner’s fate subject to diplomatic horse-trading between Russia and the United States. The countries have discussed the possibility of a prisoner swap that would bring Ms Griner back from Russia, where she has been held since she traveled there in mid February.
Officials in Moscow have said a verdict in his trial is a necessary precondition for a possible trade for Ms Griner, an Olympian who is one of the biggest stars of her generation. The United States said she had been wrongfully detained, seen by Russia as bargaining chips amid acrimony with the West over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken discussed the issue with his Russian counterpart, Sergei V. Lavrov, last week in their first phone call since Russia invaded Ukraine, but no breakthrough has been found. was reported.
The judge also fined Ms Griner 1 million rubles, or about $16,300.
Ms Griner’s defense team had tried to persuade the judge to be lenient, saying she had smuggled hash into Russia by mistake when she arrived there to compete for a team there during her WNBA off-season , and had no intention of breaking Russian law.
They reiterated that request on Thursday, asking the court to consider Ms Griner’s personality and the role she played in the development of Russian basketball. “There should be a lighter penalty,” said Maria Blagovolina, who represents Ms Griner.
In comments to the court, Ms Griner spoke about her upbringing in Houston and the values her parents instilled in her, including “take charge of your responsibilities.”
“That’s why I pleaded guilty to my charges; I understand everything that was said against me in the charges against me, but I had no intention of breaking Russian law,” she said. “I want the court to understand it was an honest mistake I made in rushing and under stress trying to recover from Covid and just trying to get back to my team.”
Russian courts are notorious for giving harsher sentences to high profile foreigners. In 2020, a Russian court sentenced Trevor R. Reed, a former US Marine, to nine years in prison, the most severe sentence for the type of crime for which he was convicted. Mr. Reed was later traded for a Russian pilot who had been convicted in the United States.
The Biden administration has come under pressure from Mrs Griner’s wife and supporters to negotiate her freedom.
Last week, Mr Blinken said the US government had “put a substantial proposal on the table” to the Russian side regarding Ms Griner and other Americans detained in Russia. He declined to discuss specifics, but a person briefed on the talks of a swap said the US had offered to swap convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout for Ms Griner and another American imprisoned in Russia, Paul N. Whelan.
Russian officials have insisted that diplomatic wrangling over Ms Griner remain behind closed doors. Dmitry S. Peskov, spokesman for the Kremlin, said on Tuesday that negotiations on a possible exchange of prisoners “should be low-key”.
“Malephone diplomacy and the public exchange of opinions will lead to no results,” he said.
Ms Griner, a star of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, arrived at a Moscow airport on February 17, en route to the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where she had played for a local team in the offseason. Customs officers checked his luggage, where they found two vape cartridges containing less than one gram of hash oil.
News of his detention only became public after Russia invaded Ukraine a week later. Ms Griner, 31, was charged with attempting to smuggle a large amount of banned narcotics into Russia.
During one of the first hearings in her case, Ms Griner pleaded guilty to the charge, but insisted she had no intention of breaking Russian law and that the illegal substance was found in his luggage as a result of an error in packing. press.