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A Russian prosecutor on Thursday asked a judge to send WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner to nine-and-a-half years in prison for drug offenses, hours before the judge was due to make her decision on a sentence.
The prosecutor’s call for a harsh sentence for Griner — as well as a 1 million ruble ($16,590) fine — came amid a US push for Russia to seriously consider a prisoner swap to bring her home. And by aiming for the 10-year maximum, the state ignored the athlete’s plea for leniency. Griner pleaded guilty last month to bringing vape cartridges containing cannabis oil into the country.
Speaking through a court interpreter late in the afternoon, Griner apologized in her closing statement before the judge’s verdict, saying she never intended to break Russian law or harm anyone in Russia.
She “made an honest mistake under stress,” she said, rushing to pack her bags and return to her Russian team, unaware the vape cartridges were in her luggage before flying to Moscow in mid-February.
“I grew up in a normal household in Houston, Texas with my siblings and my mom and dad. My mom stayed home to take care of me and my sister and my dad went to work and took care of our family,” she told the judge. “My parents taught me two things: first, to take responsibility, and second, to work hard for everything you have.”
Griner, who plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason, called Yekaterinburg her “second home”. She said she was moved by the camaraderie she found there with her teammates and by the enthusiasm of her fans, particularly the young girls who waited outside the team’s dressing rooms to greet them. “That’s why I kept coming back.”
The athlete apologized to her teams in Russia and the USA, to her parents and spouse. She was aware that people were talking about her as a “political pawn,” but distanced herself from such language, saying she hoped it wouldn’t matter in the court’s decision.
“I never wanted to hurt anyone, endanger the Russian people or break Russian laws,” she noted.
A member of her legal team, Alexander Boikov, had told the judge that Griner deserved to be acquitted despite her guilty plea and said prosecutors had proven no criminal intent. In addition, their rights were violated during the investigation and the trial.
“We know that drug laws in Russia are very strict,” Boikov said, “but Russia also cares about its prestige in sport.” Griner’s career has been a celebration of friendship between people, he continued. “She had many offers, but for some reason she chose cold Yekaterinburg because she knew how warmly she would be received there.”
Prosecutors allege that the 0.702 grams of cannabis found in the Griners’ luggage after it landed at Sheremetyevo International Airport in February was a “substantial amount”.
The Phoenix Mercury star testified that she used cannabis oil in the United States to treat chronic pain from injuries, but knew bringing cannabis into Russia was illegal. She said she flew to Russia despite warnings from the US State Department against such trips because she did not want to abandon her Russian team.
The Biden administration is facing massive public pressure to secure her release, a behind-the-scenes negotiation made significantly more difficult by the collapse in Washington-Moscow relations over the Ukraine war.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov late last week, urging him to accept a deal involving Griner and former national security adviser Paul Whelan, an American serving a 16-year sentence in Russia. Whelan, who was arrested in 2018 and convicted of espionage in 2020, says he was framed.
Blinken, Lavrov discussed a possible prisoner swap for Griner, Whelan
The United States has declined to say whether the pair would be swapped for Russian Viktor Bout, an arms dealer arrested in a US Sting operation in Thailand in 2008.
The government’s announcement of the proposed deal appears to be an attempt to stem criticism of its handling of the Griner case. But the Kremlin has urged Washington to refrain from “megaphone diplomacy,” with Russian Foreign Ministry officials repeatedly warning that public appeals will not help their cause.
John Kirby, spokesman for the US National Security Council, said Tuesday that the government would not negotiate publicly.
“We made a serious proposal, made a serious offer,” Kirby said. “And we call on the Russians to accept this offer because it was made sincerely and we know we can support it.”
In recent years, the United States has resisted Russian pressure to replace Bout given the seriousness of his offences. He was found guilty in New York in 2011 and later sentenced to 25 years in prison for conspiring to sell surface-to-air missiles, AK-47s and explosives to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), even though he knew they were planning to shoot them down US helicopter.
A deal to bring Bout home would be a major political victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is signaling to his home audience that despite unprecedented Western criticism and sanctions, he still has the clout to force the White House into negotiations with him .
Bloomberg has reported that Moscow may seek the release of a wealthy Russian businessman close to the Kremlin, Vladislav Klyushin, who appeared in a Boston court in January over an alleged $82 million insider trading scam, as part of an exchange pleaded not guilty. Klyushin claimed the case against him was “politically motivated” because of his ties to the Russian government.