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WNBA star Brittney Griner sentenced to 9 years in Russian jail for drug-smuggling

American women’s basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted of deliberately smuggling drugs into Russia and sentenced to nine years of jail time Thursday in a case that has raised concerns she is being used as a political pawn in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Judge Anna Sotnikova of the Khimki city court delivered the sentence and fined Griner 1 million rubles, or about $16,400. She said the court took into account Griner’s partial admission of guilt, remorse for the deed, state of health and charitable activities. Prosecutors had asked that she be sentenced to 9.5 years in jail.

Prior to the verdict, Griner apologized to the court and asked for leniency in an emotional speech.

“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” Griner said. “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that, that is far from this courtroom.

“I want to say again that I had no intent on breaking any Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime,” she added.

After the sentence, Griner told a producer as she left court, “I love my family.”

The verdict comes about six months after the 31-year-old was arrested at a Moscow airport and accused by Russian prosecutors of trying to smuggle less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. The two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug charges last month and said she accidentally packed the drugs while in a hurry.

Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, said in a written statement they will appeal the decision and criticized the court for ignoring their evidence. They have 10 days to appeal.

“We are very disappointed by the verdict. As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone regardless of nationality. The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea,” they said in the statement. “This contradicts the existing legal practice. Taking into account the amount of the substance (not to mention the defects of the expertise) and the plea, the verdict is absolutely unreasonable. We will certainly file an appeal.”

Speaking outside court, Boykov said that the average time in jail for this type of crime is five years, adding that almost a third of those convicted get parole.

Griner “is not doing fine today,” said Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm. The defense team is hopeful that Griner will be able to talk to her family next week. Blagovolina added that Griner will return to the detention center where she is being held.

Sentence comes amid tense US-Russia relations

The harsh sentence comes amid the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the country’s saber-rattling with the US and Europe. The US State Department maintains Griner is wrongfully detained, and US officials have offered a potential prisoner swap with Russia in an attempt to bring her home safely.

Charge d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Russia, Elizabeth Rood, said the sentence was a “miscarriage of justice,” and US President Joe Biden said the lengthy sentence was “unacceptable.”

“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden said in a statement.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized the Russian legal system more broadly, saying the sentence “puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns.”

He said the US is working to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American citizen who has been held by Russia for alleged espionage since 2018. “This is an absolute priority of mine and the Department’s,” Blinken said.

It’s now “up to the Russian side” on whether Griner’s conviction opens new doors for negotiations of a prisoner swap, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said.

“We’re still open to having our proposal seriously and positively considered, and if on the Russian side that means they feel like they’re more empowered to do that, then so be it,” Kirby told reporters in Thursday’s White House briefing.

Kirby reiterated the US position remains that it wants Russia to “take the deal on the table because it’s a good one, it’s a fair one, and it’ll help bring Paul and Brittney home.”

CNN National Security Analyst Steve Hall said the harsh sentence was not a surprise and argued that Russia’s court proceedings are not legitimate.

“This is all performance in Russia. There was never any doubt as to what was going to happen,” he said. “What Vladimir Putin is trying to do is basically drive up the bargaining price of Ms. Griner.”

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