By JIM HEINTZ
KHIMKI, Russia (AP) — U.S. 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 might result in a high-stakes prisoner trade between Washington and Moscow.
The 31-year-old Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and a eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, listened with a clean expression as an interpreter translated the decision by Decide Anna Sotnikova, however her attorneys stated later she was “very upset.” Griner additionally was fined 1 million rubles (about $16,700).
U.S. President Joe Biden denounced as “unacceptable” the decision and sentence, which got here amid hovering tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine.
“I name on Russia to launch her instantly so she will be along with her spouse, family members, pals and teammates,” Biden stated, including that he would proceed to work to convey residence Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.
Exterior courtroom, the U.S. Embassy’s cost d’affaires Elizabeth Rood referred to as the result “a miscarriage of justice.”
Griner, acknowledged as one of many best 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.
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 beneath the fees. Most Russians possessing small portions of medication get at most 5 years in jail, attorneys stated.
Protection lawyer Maria Blagovolina instructed reporters later that Griner was “very upset, very confused. She will hardly discuss. It’s a tough time for her.”
Earlier than 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.”
Along with her voice cracking, she added: “I hope in your ruling it doesn’t finish my life.”
Griner has 10 days to enchantment, and her attorneys say they count on a listening to in Moscow regional courtroom subsequent week. Requested if Griner might ask for pardon from President Vladimir Putin, Blagovolina stated they’d take into account each chance, however the attorneys stated they weren’t a part of any discussions a few prisoner swap.
Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas stated the sentence “was extreme by Russian authorized requirements and goes to show what we have now recognized 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 trade and likewise permits Griner to use for a pardon. Deputy International Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated final month the “essential judicial procedures” have to be accomplished earlier than different steps will be taken.
The disclosure in July that the U.S. authorities was searching for a prisoner swap involving Griner mirrored the rising stress on the Biden administration to do extra to convey her residence. The U.S. State Division 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 on the fees towards me. However 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 instructed her to signal paperwork with out explaining what they had been. She additionally stated she was not knowledgeable of her rights.
Her attorneys launched proof that Griner was utilizing the 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 meant to interrupt the regulation or “plan to smuggle something into Russia.”
Griner’s case and her almost six months behind bars have raised sturdy criticism amongst her supporters in america, together with her spouse, Cherelle, that Biden was not doing sufficient to win her freedom.
Griner despatched a private enchantment 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 satisfy with Brittney’s spouse Cherelle instantly.” Biden later referred to as Cherelle Griner “to reassure her that he’s working to safe Brittney’s launch as quickly as attainable,” the White Home stated July 6.
Cherelle Griner, who additionally spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris, later stated she was “grateful to the 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, U.S. 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. Particulars of the proposal weren’t introduced, although an individual aware of the matter stated the U.S. has supplied to commerce convicted Russian arms seller Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner. The individual insisted on anonymity to debate an ongoing investigation.
Russian media have speculated repeatedly that Griner might be swapped for Bout, nicknamed “the Service provider of Demise,” who’s serving a 25-year sentence within the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. residents and offering support to a terrorist group. Russia has agitated for Bout’s launch for years.
The severity of Griner’s sentence might give Russia leverage in a swap by rising stress on Washington to barter her launch.
“I feel that the harsher the sentence, the extra stress there will probably be on the Biden administration to make a deal, and clearly they like leveraging that stress,” Tom Firestone, a lawyer who previously served because the resident authorized adviser on the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, stated of the Russians earlier than the sentence was imposed.
Even with U.S.-Russia relations at a low level, the 2 nations managed to rearrange a swap in April of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. 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 america hit new lows after Washington led the West in bringing sanctions towards Moscow.
Her plight has been highlighted by supporters at residence, together with prime athletes, particularly after little information emerged about her preliminary weeks of detention in Russia, the place she had restricted entry to U.S. diplomats. It was solely in Could that the State Division designated her as wrongfully detained, transferring her case beneath its Particular Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, successfully the federal government’s chief hostage negotiator.
On the ESPY Awards final month, soccer star Megan Rapinoe referred to Griner as “a political prisoner,” and tennis nice Billie Jean King stated, “First, convey BG residence. Gotta do this.”
NBA Finals MVP Stephen Curry wore Griner’s jersey beneath his monitor go well with on the awards present and urged “the whole international sports activities neighborhood to proceed to remain energized on her behalf.”
Griner, a 6-foot-9 middle, 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 Related Press school basketball participant of the 12 months and led Baylor to a 40-0 season and the 2012 NCAA title. She was the No. 1 choose by Phoenix within the 2013 draft.
Her teammates watched Thursday’s trial on tv in a locker room in Connecticut, the place they had been to play a night recreation. The sport was to be preceded by a 42-second second of silence — 42 is Griner’s quantity.
The commissioners of the WNBA and NBA referred to as the decision “unjustified and unlucky, however not sudden.”
Related Press writers Eric Tucker in Washington and Doug Feinberg in New York contributed.
Observe AP’s protection of the Brittney Griner case at https://apnews.com/hub/brittney-griner