A Russian court on Thursday sentenced US basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison for drug trafficking as US President Joe Biden called the ruling “unacceptable”. The court “declared the defendant guilty of” smuggling and possession of “a substantial amount of narcotics”, judge Anna Sotnikova told a court in the town of Khimki just outside Moscow. Sotnikova sentenced Griner, 31, to nine years in prison and said she would also have to pay a fine of one million rubles ($16,590). US President Joe Biden immediately issued a statement, calling the Russian court’s sentencing of Griner “unacceptable.”
“Russia is wrongly holding Brittney. It is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release her immediately so that she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and family. his teammates,” Biden said in the statement.
The US president reiterated that he would “work tirelessly and pursue every path possible” to bring Griner home.
Griner’s trial has been accelerated in recent days as the United States and Russia discuss a potential prisoner swap that could involve the basketball star.
The six-foot-nine (2.06-meter) star was detained at a Moscow airport in February after she was spotted carrying a vape box with cannabis oil in her luggage. The arrest comes just days before Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine.
Prosecutors had previously asked the two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist and female NBA champion to be sentenced to nine and a half years in prison for drug trafficking.
Griner’s trial comes amid rising tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, prompting international condemnation and the introduction of numerous Western sanctions.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope that your judgment doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said earlier on Thursday.
“I want the court to understand that it was an honest mistake that I made during the rush, the stress, trying to recover from Covid and just trying to get back on my team.”
Griner pleaded guilty but said she had no intention of breaking the law or using drugs in Russia.
Her defense team said they were “very disappointed” by the ruling and would appeal.
Lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in a statement: “The court completely ignored all defense evidence, and most importantly, the guilty plea.”
“The ruling is completely unreasonable. We will definitely file an appeal.”
Prosecutor Nikolay Vlasenko requested a sentence of nine years and six months in prison for Griner, asking for a shorter term than the maximum penalty of 10 years.
Vlasenko said Griner “deliberately” went through the green corridor at customs and claimed she had nothing to declare “to conceal” the substance.
Earlier in the day, Griner entered the courtroom in handcuffs, escorted by several law enforcement officers and a police dog.
Standing in a cage for the defendants before the hearing began, she held up a picture of herself with teammates from the Russian club she played for.
“Proposal” to swap prisoners
Griner was detained when she traveled to Russia to play club basketball with UMMC Ekaterinburg during the US season – a popular route for American stars seeking extra income.
In previous hearings, Griner said she was regularly tested by American, Russian and European leagues.
The WNBA star said she was given permission by a US doctor to use medicinal cannabis to relieve the pain of her many injuries – “from the spine to the meniscus”.
Her case has sparked speculation about a potential prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Washington had made an “important proposal” to Moscow to free Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, who are being held on espionage charges.
A prisoner exchange was also discussed during the call between Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Friday.
The tallest Russian prisoner in the US is Victor Bout, 55, an arms dealer, dubbed the “Trader of Death”, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence.
There is no official confirmation that Washington has offered to exchange him.
Russia and the US have been conducting a prisoner exchange since the start of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
In April, Washington traded former US Marine Trevor Reed for convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko.
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