Russian judge convicts WNBA’s Brittney Griner, gives 9-year sentence

KHIMKI, Russia (AP) — US basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted Thursday in Russia of drug possession and smuggling and was sentenced to 9 years behind bars in a politically charged case that would result in a high-stakes prisoner change between Washington and Moscow.

The 31-year-old Griner, a two-time US Olympic champion and an eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, listened with a clean expression as an interpreter translated the decision by Judge Anna Sotnikova, however her attorneys stated later she was “very upset.” Griner additionally was fined 1 million rubles (about $16,700).

US President Joe Biden denounced as “unacceptable” the decision and sentence, which got here amid hovering tensions between the US and Russia over Ukraine.

“I name on Russia to launch her instantly so she will be along with her spouse, family members, mates and teammates,” Biden stated, including that he would proceed to work to carry residence Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.

Outside courtroom, the US Embassy’s cost d’affaires Elizabeth Rood known as the end result “a miscarriage of justice.”

Griner, acknowledged as one of many biggest gamers in WNBA historical past, has been detained since Feb. 17 after police stated they discovered vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her baggage upon touchdown at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. She was returning to Russia, the place she has competed since 2014.

American basketball star Brittney Griner hears her verdict within the drug possession trial in Russia. (CNN, POOL)

As she was led out of courtroom, Griner stated: “I really like my household.”

The nine-year sentence was near the utmost of 10 years that Griner had confronted underneath the costs. Most Russians possessing small portions of medication get at most 5 years in jail, attorneys stated.

Defense lawyer Maria Blagovolina informed reporters later that Griner was “very upset, very pressured. She can hardly speak. It’s a tough time for her.”

Before the unusually swift verdict was reached, an emotional Griner apologized to her household, teammates and the Russian metropolis of Yekaterinburg, the place she performs within the WNBA offseason, “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I introduced on them.”

With her voice cracking, she added: “I hope in your ruling it doesn’t finish my life.”

Griner has 10 days to attraction, and her attorneys say they anticipate a listening to within the Moscow regional courtroom subsequent week. Asked if Griner may ask for pardon from President Vladimir Putin, Blagovolina stated they might think about each risk, however the attorneys stated they weren’t a part of any discussions a couple of prisoner swap.

Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas stated the sentence “was extreme by Russian authorized requirements and goes to show what we’ve identified all alongside, that Brittney is getting used as a political pawn.” She added that she supported Biden’s efforts “to get a deal achieved.”

A conviction is often wanted earlier than arranging a prisoner change and likewise permits Griner to use for a pardon. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated final month the “obligatory judicial procedures” should be accomplished earlier than different steps will be taken.

The disclosure in July that the US authorities was in search of a prisoner swap involving Griner mirrored the rising strain on the Biden administration to do extra to carry her residence. The US State Department had earlier declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a cost that Russia has sharply rejected.

When she took the stand July 7, Griner stated: “I wish to plead responsible to the costs in opposition to me. But I had no intention of breaking any Russian regulation.” She added that she introduced the vape canisters into Russia as a result of she had packed in haste for her flight.

Griner additionally described a complicated scene whereas being held on the airport, saying an interpreter offered by authorities translated solely a fraction of what was being stated to her and that officers informed her to signal paperwork with out explaining what they have been. She additionally stated she was not knowledgeable of her rights.

Her attorneys launched proof that Griner was utilizing medicinal hashish for persistent ache and accidents sustained throughout her profession and included a letter from her physician. Griner testified she was conscious hashish oil was outlawed in Russia and had not supposed to interrupt the regulation or “plan to smuggle something into Russia.”

US makes an attempt Russian launch of Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.

Griner’s case and her practically six months behind bars have raised robust criticism amongst her supporters within the United States, together with her spouse, Cherelle, that Biden was not doing sufficient to win her freedom.

Griner despatched a private attraction to Biden, and greater than 1,100 Black feminine leaders urged the administration to “make a deal to get Brittney again residence swiftly and safely and to fulfill with Brittney’s spouse Cherelle instantly.” Biden later known as Cherelle Griner “to reassure her that he’s working to safe Brittney’s launch as quickly as potential,” the White House stated July 6.

Cherelle Griner, who additionally spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris, later stated she was “grateful to each of them for the time they spent with me and for the dedication they expressed to getting BG residence,” utilizing her spouse’s initials.

On July 27, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated Washington has supplied a deal to Russia geared toward bringing residence Griner and Whelan in a pointy reversal of earlier coverage. Details of the proposal weren’t introduced, though an individual conversant in the matter stated the US has supplied to commerce convicted Russian arms vendor Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner. The particular person insisted on anonymity to debate an ongoing investigation.

Russian media have speculated repeatedly that Griner could possibly be swapped for Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who’s serving a 25-year sentence within the US after being convicted of conspiracy to kill US residents and offering support to a terrorist group. Russia has agitated for Bout’s launch for years.

The severity of Griner’s sentence may give Russia leverage in a swap by growing strain on Washington to barter her launch.

“I believe that the harsher the sentence, the extra strain there will likely be on the Biden administration to make a deal, and clearly they like leveraging that strain,” Tom Firestone, a lawyer who previously served because the resident authorized adviser on the US Embassy in Moscow, stated of the Russians earlier than the sentence was imposed.

Even with US-Russia relations at a low level, the 2 international locations managed to rearrange a swap in April of Trevor Reed, a former US Marine detained in Russia, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot and convicted drug trafficker serving a 20-year jail sentence in Connecticut.

Griner’s detention was made public solely after Russian troops moved into Ukraine, as relations between Russia and the United States hit new lows after Washington led the West in bringing sanctions in opposition to Moscow.

Her plight has been highlighted by supporters at residence, together with high athletes, particularly after little information emerged about her preliminary weeks of detention in Russia, the place she had restricted entry to US diplomats. It was solely in May that the State Department designated her as wrongfully detained, transferring her case underneath its Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, successfully the federal government’s chief hostage negotiator.

At the ESPY Awards final month, soccer star Megan Rapinoe referred to Griner as “a political prisoner,” and tennis nice Billie Jean King stated, “First, carry BG residence. Gotta try this.”

NBA Finals MVP Stephen Curry wore Griner’s jersey underneath his monitor swimsuit on the awards present and urged “your complete international sports activities neighborhood to proceed to remain energized on her behalf..”

Griner, a 6-foot-9 heart, has 12 of the 15 common season dunks in WNBA historical past and set the single-year file for blocks with 129 in 2014. She led the league in scoring twice. She was a two-time Associated Press faculty basketball participant of the 12 months and led Baylor to a 40-0 season and the 2012 NCAA title. She was the No. 1 decide by Phoenix within the 2013 draft.

Her teammates watched Thursday’s trial on tv in a locker room in Connecticut, the place they have been to play a night recreation. The recreation was to be preceded by a 42-second second of silence — 42 is Griner’s quantity.

The commissioners of the WNBA and NBA known as the decision “unjustified and unlucky, however not sudden.”

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Associated Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Doug Feinberg in New York contributed.

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Follow AP’s protection of the Brittney Griner case at https://apnews.com/hub/brittney-griner

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