A Russian court has sentenced US basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison on drug charges. The court near Moscow convicted her of smuggling and possessing narcotics. The prosecution had sought a nine-and-a-half year jail term. The double Olympic winner has admitted to possessing cannabis oil, but told the court she had made an “honest mistake”.
The American had already spent a significant amount of time in detention, the presiding judge stated as she read the verdict on Thursday. The defense team declared that they will challenge the judgment. A vape cartridge containing cannabis oil was discovered in Griner’s luggage in February at an airport close to Moscow, leading to her detention. Griner is regarded as one of the top players in the world.
For the US off-season, she traveled to Russia to play club basketball. US President Joe Biden called the sentencing “unacceptable”. It is unclear how long she will actually spend behind bars, as the US and Russia have been discussing a potential prisoner swap that could involve the basketball player. Reports in US media suggest imprisoned Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout – known as the Merchant of Death – could be transferred by Washington to the Russian authorities as part of the potential deal.
Speaking after her sentencing, White House national security spokesman John Kirby urged Russia to accept the “serious proposal” offered by the US for Griner and fellow detained US citizen Paul Whelan. “It’s a serious proposal. We urge them to accept it. They should have accepted it weeks ago when we first made it,” Mr Kirby said.
After the court heard closing arguments, Griner said: “I made an honest mistake, and I hope in your ruling it does not end my life. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime,” she added.
Griner also said she had received neither an explanation of her rights nor access to a lawyer in the initial hours of her detention, and that she had to use a translation app on her phone to communicate.