KHIMKI, RUSSIA: A Russian court found on Thursday American basketball star Brittney Griner guilty of smuggling and stockpiling drugs and sentenced her to nine years in prison.
The court “found the defendant guilty” of smuggling and possession of “a significant amount of narcotics”, Judge Anna Sotnikova told a court in the city of Khimki, just outside Moscow.
Sotnikova sentenced Griner, 31, to nine years in prison and said she would also have to pay a fine of one million rubles ($16,590).
The six-foot-nine (2.06-meter) star was arrested at a Moscow airport in February after she was found carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage. The arrest came days before Moscow launched its military intervention in Ukraine.
Prosecutors had previously requested that the two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist and NBA women’s champion be sentenced to nine and a half years in prison for drug trafficking.
Griner’s trial came amid soaring tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, which has drawn international condemnation and a litany of Western sanctions.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope your decision doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said earlier Thursday.
“I want the court to understand that it was an honest mistake that I made in rushing, under stress, trying to recover from post-Covid and just trying to get back to my team.”
Griner’s trial has gathered pace in recent days as the United States and Russia discuss a potential prisoner swap that could involve the basketball star.
“I ask the court to find Griner guilty and sentence her to nine years and six months in prison,” prosecutor Nikolay Vlasenko said, asking for a sentence just short of the maximum sentence of 10 years.
Vlasenko said Griner “deliberately” walked through the green lane at customs and said she had nothing to declare “in order to conceal” the substance.
Griner entered the courtroom in handcuffs, escorted by several law enforcement officers and a police dog.
Standing in a cage for the defendants before the start of the hearing, she held up a picture of herself with teammates from the Russian club she plays for.
His lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, told the court on Thursday that Griner was “an icon for a lot of people” and “was brave” to admit his guilt.
She added that the amount of substance brought in by the athlete was “a bit more” than the amount allowed.
Blagovolina asked the court to acquit Griner or consider a more lenient sentence if found guilty.
Griner was arrested when she came to Russia to play club basketball with UMMC Ekaterinburg during the American offseason – a common route for American stars looking for extra income.
Griner pleaded guilty to the charges, but said she had no intention of breaking the law or using the banned substance in Russia.
In previous hearings, Griner said she was regularly tested by the American, Russian and European leagues.
The WNBA star said she got permission from an American doctor to use medical cannabis to relieve pain from her many injuries – “from the spine to the cartilages”.
His case has raised speculation about a possible prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Washington had made a “substantial offer” to Moscow to release Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, who was jailed for espionage.
A prisoner swap was also mooted during a call between Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Friday.
The most high-profile Russian prisoner in the United States is Victor Bout, a 55-year-old arms dealer, nicknamed the “merchant of death”, who is serving 25 years in prison.
There is no official confirmation that Washington offered to trade him.
Russia and the United States have already exchanged prisoners since the beginning of the Ukrainian offensive from Moscow.
In April, Washington traded former US Marine Trevor Reed for convicted drug trafficker Konstantin Yaroshenko.