Brittney Griner: Russian prosecutors seek 9 1/2-year sentence for WNBA star charged with cannabis possession

MOSCOW — Prosecutors on Thursday petitioned a Russian court to convict American basketball star Brittney Griner and sentence her to 9 1/2 years in prison after concluding her arguments in her drug possession trial.

The trial neared its conclusion almost six months after Griner’s arrest at a Moscow airport in a case that has reached the highest levels of US-Russia diplomacy, with Washington proposing a prisoner swap. Under Russian law, the 31-year-old faces up to ten years in prison if convicted.

Although a conviction is all but certain, given that Russian courts rarely acquit defendants and that Griner has admitted to having cannabis oil vaporizer cartridges in her luggage, the judges have considerable leeway in sentencing.

Lawyers for the Phoenix Mercury Center and the two-time Olympic gold medalist have strategized to support Griner’s claim that she had no criminal intent and hastily packed the canisters in her luggage. They have produced character witnesses from the Russian team she plays for in the WNBA offseason and a written testimony from a doctor who said he prescribed her cannabis to treat pain.

SEE RELATED STORY: US offers Russia deal aimed at bringing home WNBA star Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan

Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, argued that Griner accidentally brought the cartridges to Russia and only used cannabis to treat her pain from injuries sustained in her career. She said she’s only used it in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal.

She stressed that Griner was packing in a hurry after a grueling flight and suffering from the effects of COVID-19. Blagovolina also pointed out that the analysis of cannabis found in Griner’s possession was flawed and in violation of legal procedures.

Blagovolina asked the court to acquit Griner, noting that she had no criminal record and praising her role in the “development of Russian basketball.”

Another defender, Alexander Boykov, also emphasized Griner’s role as she won multiple championships with her Yekaterinburg team, noting that she was loved and admired by her teammates.

He told the judge that a conviction would undermine Russia’s efforts to develop the national sport and make Moscow’s call to depoliticize sport sound superficial.

Boykov added that even after her arrest, Griner won the sympathy of both her guards and the prison inmates, who supported her by shouting, “Brittney, everything will be fine!” as she walked around the prison.

Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko insisted that Griner intentionally packaged the cannabis oil and asked the court to fine Griner 1 million rubles (about US$16,700) in addition to the prison sentence.

It is not yet clear when the verdict will be announced. If she is not released, attention will turn to the risky possibility of a prisoner swap.

Before her trial began in July, the State Department labeled her “unlawfully detained” and placed her case under the oversight of the President’s special envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.

Then, in an extraordinary move, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov last week, urging him to accept a deal that would free Griner and Paul Whelan, an American jailed in Russia for espionage.

The Lavrov Blinken call was the most high-profile contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia deployed troops to Ukraine more than five months ago. Direct access to Griner is at odds with US efforts to isolate the Kremlin.

People familiar with the proposal say it envisages trading Griner and Whelan for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a prison sentence in the United States. It underscores the public pressure the White House has faced to release Griner.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday Russia responded “in bad faith” to the US government’s offer, a counter-offer that American officials do not take seriously. She declined to elaborate.

Russian officials have ridiculed US statements on the case, saying they flout Russian law. They remained unconcerned, urging Washington to discuss the issue through “quiet diplomacy without the release of speculative information.”

SEE RELATED STORY: WNBA All-Star and Houston native Brittney Griner lands on the cover of Time Magazine

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Brittney Griner: Russian prosecutors seek 9 1/2-year sentence for WNBA star charged with cannabis possession

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