American women’s basketball star Brittney Griner at the Khimki court where she was tried for possession of cannabis, August 4, 2022 near Moscow (POOL / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV)
A Russian court on Thursday sentenced American women’s basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison for drug trafficking, a heavy sentence described as “unacceptable” by Joe Biden, paving the way for a possible prisoner exchange between Moscow and Washington.
Arrested in February in Moscow with a vaporizer containing cannabis-based liquid, before the Russian offensive in Ukraine, the double Olympic champion was caught in the geopolitical crisis between Russia and the United States.
His trial has been accelerated in recent days as the two countries negotiate a prisoner swap to be part of the player, with Washington claiming to have recently made a “huge” offer in Moscow.
The White House on Thursday “urged” Russia to accept the “serious offer” of exchanges. “We made a big offer to bring him (…) home. We urge Russia to accept this proposal,” said spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre.
“The court found the defendant guilty” of illegal drug possession and trafficking, said judge Anna Sotnikova, according to an AFP reporter who was at the court in Khimki, near Moscow.
As a result, the basketball player was sentenced to “nine years of imprisonment in a penal colony” and a fine of one million rubles (about 16,000 euros at the current rate), he added.
“This is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release him immediately so that he can be reunited with his wife, relatives and teammates,” urged US President Joe Biden in a statement immediately after the verdict was announced.
Griner’s attorneys announced their decision to appeal the “utter insanity” verdict.
The player listened to the judge’s statement with his face down, locked in the cage reserved for the accused in the court.
-For a vaper-
“I made a mistake in good faith and I hope the verdict does not end my life here,” Griner pleaded in his final speech before the announcement of the court’s decision.
American women’s basketball star Brittney Griner at the Khimki court where she was tried for possession of cannabis, on August 4, 2022 near Moscow ( AFP / Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV )
Aged 31 and measuring 2.06 meters, Griner is considered one of the best basketball players in the world. Since the start of the trial, he has appeared focused, answering the court’s questions calmly and precisely.
Thursday, before the hearing began, he held up to reporters a photo of himself surrounded by his Russian basketball teammates.
The Phoenix Mercury player came to Russia to play during the American offseason, a common practice for WNBA basketball players who often earn more money abroad than in the United States.
He was arrested at the airport with cannabis vaping liquid. He admitted that he had obtained this substance, even claiming that it had been brought to Russia by mistake.
American women’s basketball star Brittney Griner shows a photo of her and her teammates at the Khimki court where she was tried for possession of cannabis, August 4, 2022 near Moscow ( POOL / EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA )
Above all, he denied any trafficking, stressing that this small amount of substance was only for his personal consumption, for analgesic purposes, because he suffered from chronic pain.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to endanger Russians, or break the law here,” Griner said Thursday.
On Thursday, the prosecutor assured him that he had deliberately tried to “hide” the cannabis-based liquid from the customs officials at the airport.
– Russian arms dealer –
The player’s lawyers are asking for his acquittal.
A player’s conviction legally paves the way for a possible prisoner exchange.
Last week, the head of American diplomacy Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had their first discussions since the start of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine.
Blinken said he pressed his counterpart to accept Washington’s “substantial offer” to Moscow to secure the release of Griner and another American detained in Russia, Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence. because of espionage.
(lr) Photo montage from July 28, 2022 showing Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, American basketball player Brittney Griner and American spy Paul Whelan (AFP/Nicolas ASFOURI)
According to some American media, it may be a question of exchanging a famous Russian arms dealer who is imprisoned in the United States, Viktor Bout, against Brittney Griner and Mr. Whelan.
Mr. Bout, arrested in Thailand in 2008 and serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States, was nicknamed the “businessman of death”. His extraordinary career is one of the inspirations for the film “Lord of War” in which Nicolas Cage plays an arms dealer.
No deal has yet been reported and the Kremlin appeared angry after Washington’s public statements about the negotiations.
Ms Blagovolina, Griner’s lawyer, said on Tuesday that the player’s defense hoped for only one thing: “To go home”.