A Russian court on Thursday sentenced US basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison after finding her guilty of deliberately bringing cannabis-infused vape cartridges into Russia despite them being illegal.
Her sentencing could pave the way for a US-Russia prisoner swap that would include the 31-year-old athlete and an imprisoned Russian who was once a prolific arms dealer.
Griner earlier pleaded with a Russian judge not to “end her life” with a harsh prison sentence for bringing in vape cartridges containing hashish oil, before breaking down in tears in court.
The Russian prosecutor called for Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and a Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, to be sentenced to 9-1/2 years prison if she was found guilty of bringing illegal drugs into the country.
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Griner was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty but said she had neither intended to bring a banned substance to Russia nor to hurt anybody.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn't end my life here,” Griner said in court before breaking down in tears.
“My parents taught me two important things: one, take ownership of your responsibilities and two, work hard for everything that you have. That's why I pled guilty to my charges.”
The case threw the Texan athlete into the geopolitical maelstrom triggered when President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
With US-Russian relations at their most strained since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, US President Joe Biden is under pressure to intervene on behalf of Americans held in Russia.
“I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” Griner said.
Cannabis is illegal in Russia for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
Griner's lawyers told the court she should be acquitted but that if the court deemed it necessary to punish her, she should be treated leniently, casting her as a sporting legend alongside Usain Bolt and Michael Schumacher.
“In sprinting there is Usain Bolt, in Formula 1 Michael Schumacher, and in women's basketball there is Brittney Griner,” lawyer Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners law firm, told the court.
Alexander Boikov, her other lawyer, said some of the case files were drawn up in violation of the law.
The United States has said Griner was wrongfully detained and has offered to exchange Russian prisoners for American citizens including Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan.
“I want to say again that I had no intent on breaking any Russians laws,” Griner told the court. “I had no intent, I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime.”
One source familiar with the situation said that Washington was willing to exchange convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, whose life helped inspire the 2005 Hollywood film “Lord of War” starring Nicholas Cage.
Russian officials have said a deal has not been reached. They argue that Griner - known as “BG” to basketball fans - violated laws and should be judged accordingly.
Griner appeared at the hearing in a grey T-shirt and round-rimmed glasses. Before taking a seat in the defendant's cage, she held up a team picture of UMMC Ekaterinburg, the team she played for in Russia during the WNBA offseason.
In her testimony last week, Griner expressed puzzlement as to how the vape cartridges ended up in her luggage as she was flying back to Russia to join UMMC Ekaterinburg for the playoffs.
“I still don't understand to this day how they ended up in my bag,” said Griner, the first pick overall in the 2013 WNBA draft. “If I had to guess on how they ended up in my bags, I was in a rush packing.”
Griner had been prescribed medical marijuana in the United States to relieve pain from chronic injuries, a treatment method that is common among elite athletes because it has fewer side effects than some painkillers.