American women’s basketball star Brittney Griner, who has been detained in Russia since February, was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Russian court on Thursday for drug trafficking, after she was caught using a vape containing cannabis liquid.
It was an expected verdict, as Brittney Griner became a diplomatic stake between Washington and Moscow. Imprisoned since February in Russia, the American basketball player was sentenced on Thursday August 4 to 9 years in prison by a Russian court for drug trafficking.
The court in Khimki, a northern suburb of Moscow, found the player guilty of drug possession and trafficking and sentenced him “to nine years in a penal colony”, said judge Anna Sotnikova. , according to an AFP reporter in the area.
The 31-year-old denied that there was smuggling. His lawyers announced that he will appeal his conviction.
US President Joe Biden, who designated the basketball player’s fate as “a priority” in early July, immediately criticized his conviction.
“This is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release him immediately so he can be reunited with his wife, relatives and colleagues,” he urged in a statement. “US citizen Brittney Griner is given a prison sentence that is yet another reminder of what the world already knows: Russia’s wrongful detention of Brittney.”
“I made a real mistake”
Since her arrest in February at a Moscow airport, days before Russia’s offensive in Ukraine, Brittney Griner has been immersed 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.
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On Thursday, a prosecutor requested that Griner “be convicted and sentenced to nine and a half years in a conventional (penal) colony.” This is almost the highest possible requisition for this crime, set at 10 years in prison. The prosecutor also asked to sentence the player to pay a fine of one million rubles (about 16,000 euros at the current rate).
“I made a mistake in good faith and I hope that the judgment will not end my life here”, requested the international star of basketball during his last speech, before the withdrawal of the court before the announcement of the decision.
Brittney Griner, 2.06 meters, 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.
On Thursday, he appeared in court again in handcuffs, wearing a gray t-shirt, before being placed in the barred cage reserved for defendants. Before the hearing began, he held up to reporters a photo of himself surrounded by his Russian basketball teammates.
The sad world of sport
The sports world greeted his conviction with sadness and anger. The North American Women’s Basketball League (WNBA) and the NBA deplored the “unfair and regrettable” sentencing of the female basketball star, adding “the verdict (…) was predictable, and Brittney remains guilty of detained”.
“The WNBA’s commitment to her safe return is unwavering and we hope that the end of this process to bring Brittney Griner back to the United States for good is near,” the league commissioner said. , Cathy Engelbert.
The American Basketball Federation also expressed its disappointment, but not the surprise “given what we know of the procedure”.
For the Phoenix Mercury, its “broken-hearted” WNBA team, Brittney Griner’s conviction marks an “important step” in the “horror 168 days our brother, BG, has endured”. “We will not let it be forgotten,” added the Arizona club.
Before the start of a WNBA championship game in Connecticut, Mercury and Sun players observed 42 seconds of silence, in support of the one who usually wears this number on his jersey.
A prisoner exchange is being considered, including a Russian arms dealer
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. Above all, he denies any traffic, emphasizing that this small amount of substance is only for his personal consumption, for analgesic purposes, because he suffers from chronic pain like many athletes.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to endanger Russians, or break the law here,” said Brittney Griner. The prosecutor assured him that he was deliberately trying to “hide” the cannabis-based liquid from customs officials.
The player’s conviction legally paves the way for a possible exchange of prisoners.
On Friday, the head of American diplomacy Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov held their first talks since the start of Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine. Antony Blinken said he pressed his counterpart to accept Washington’s “substantial offer” to Moscow to secure the release of Griner and another American imprisoned in Russia, Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence in imprisonment for surveillance.
According to some American media, it could be a question of exchanging a famous Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the United States, Viktor Bout, against Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.
Viktor 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 a very funny arms dealer.