Russian prosecutors have asked a court outside Moscow to sentence Brittney Griner to 9½ years in prison on cannabis possession charges.
The prosecutors’ request was made during closing arguments Thursday in Griner’s trial, nearly six months after the American basketball star was arrested at a Moscow airport in a case that has reached the highest levels of U.S.-Russia diplomacy.
Griner also addressed the judge Thursday, saying that she “never meant to break any law” in Russia by having vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage at the time of her arrest Feb. 17 and that it was an honest mistake.
“I know everybody keeps talking about ‘political pawn’ and ‘politics,’ but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” Griner said.
A ruling is set for later Thursday, when the judge will read the entire report into the record before issuing a verdict and sentence. Any sentence is considered a formality by experts, as the length of her detainment will be determined by negotiations on a prisoner swap between the United States and Russia.
In her comments to the judge, Griner publicly apologized for the embarrassment caused by her arrest.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city of [Yekaterinburg] for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them,” Griner said, her voice cracking. “I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA and my amazing spouse back at home.”
Griner’s lawyer Maria Blagovolina asked the court to acquit Griner, noting that she had no past criminal record and hailing her role in “the development of Russian basketball.”
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If the court does deem it necessary to punish her, Blagovolina said, then Griner — who faces a maximum sentence of 10 years — should receive the most lenient punishment.
Lawyers for the Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist have pursued strategies to bolster Griner’s contention that she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage due to hasty packing. They have presented character witnesses from the Yekaterinburg team and written testimony from a doctor who said he prescribed her cannabis for pain treatment. Alexander Boykov, her other lawyer, also said some of the case files were drawn up in violation of the law.
Boykov also emphasized Griner’s role in helping Yekaterinburg win multiple championships, noting that she was loved and admired by her teammates. He told the judge that a conviction would undermine Russia’s efforts to develop national sports and make Moscow’s call to depoliticize sports sound shallow.
The lawyer added that even after her arrest, Griner won the sympathy of her guards and other prison inmates, who supported her by shouting, “Brittney, everything will be OK!” when she went on walks at the jail.
Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko insisted that Griner packed the cannabis oil deliberately and asked the court to hand Briner a fine of 1 million rubles (about $16,700) in addition to the prison sentence.
Assuming she does not go free, attention will turn to the high-stakes possibility of a prisoner swap.
Before Griner’s trial began in July, the U.S. State Department designated her as “wrongfully detained,” moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.
Last week, in an extraordinary move, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction, would go free.
The Lavrov-Blinken call marked the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops into Ukraine more than five months ago. The direct outreach over Griner is at odds with U.S. efforts to isolate the Kremlin.
According to ESPN and multiple reports, the proposal envisions trading Griner and Whelan for notorious arms trader Viktor Bout. It underlines the public pressure the White House has faced to get Griner released.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Russia has made a “bad faith” response to the U.S. government’s offer, a counteroffer that American officials don’t regard as serious. She declined to elaborate.
Russian officials have scoffed at U.S. statements about the case, saying they show a disrespect for Russian law. They remained poker-faced, urging Washington to discuss the issue through “quiet diplomacy without releases of speculative information.”
ESPN’s T.J. Quinn, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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