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Russian prosecutors demand 9 1/2 years in prison for Brittney Griner

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Russian prosecutors have asked a court outside Moscow to sentence Brittney Griner to 9 1/2 years in prison as the American basketball star neared the end of a drug charges trial Thursday.

The court heard closing arguments ahead of a verdict that would draw attention to the possibility of a high-stakes prisoner swap between the United States and Russia.

In a final plea for leniency, an emotional Griner apologized and reiterated that she never intended to break Russian laws, but had made “an honest mistake.”

Griner last month pleaded guilty to charges carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years in a lengthy trial that has highlighted the shaky relations between the two countries since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Griner, 31, was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February; Russian authorities said they found vape cans containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, admitted the buses were hers. She said she inadvertently brought them to Russia.

One of her lawyers, Alexander Boikov, told reporters at the trial that Griner was in a hurry while packing and that the vape cartridges accidentally ended up in her luggage.

On Thursday, Griner was led handcuffed to a cage in the courtroom, wearing a gray-colored shirt. Before the proceedings began, she showed a photo of her teammates from the Russian club she played for in the WNBA off-season.

Prosecutors asked for a 9 1/2 year prison sentence for Griner and a fine of 1 million rubles ($16,590) as her guilt was fully proven, but her lawyer Maria Blagovolina called it “nonsense.”

Her defense team questioned some of the expert analysis used in the case, saying Griner did not have proper interpreting access during her arrest. They also pointed to Griner’s many athletic achievements, including in Russia.

Her lawyers reiterated that Griner has only used cannabis medicinally and never in Russia. They demanded that Griner be acquitted or that he receive the most lenient sentence possible.

When Griner addressed the court after the closing arguments, her voice shook as she apologized to her fans, family and teammates for any embarrassment or harm she may have caused them. She called the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where she played, her second home.

“It was never my intention to hurt anyone,” she said. “It was never my intention to endanger the Russian people. It was never my intention to break any laws here.”

In previous hearings her defense team argued that, like many international athletes, Griner, a 6-foot-9 Houston native who plays for Russia’s Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company Ekaterinburg in the off-season, uses medicinal marijuana to help with injury pain.

Griner’s legal team has also tried to build its defense on her image as a role model and positive contributions to global and Russian basketball.

The Kremlin has been accused of using Griner as a political pawn, while the Biden administration faces mounting pressure from her family and teammates to secure her release.

Image: Brittney Griner
There are growing calls for Washington to do more to secure Griner’s release, nearly five months after he was arrested on drug charges.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

The US government has proposed to Moscow to release Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year prison sentence for espionage, in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to two sources familiar with the case.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters On Monday, Russia responded in bad faith to the US government’s offer with an offer of its own. “We don’t see it as a serious counter-offer,” she said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken talked to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, last week — the highest-level diplomatic cooperation between Washington and Moscow since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February — urged the Kremlin to accept the US offer. Blinken called it a “candid and direct conversation”, but declined to characterize Lavrov’s reaction.

The Russians responded by urging the US to refrain from speculation and instead pursue “quiet diplomacy”.

US officials don’t expect any quick move in the bid to free Griner after today’s expected verdict, but say they will continue to push for her release, a US official told NBC News.

Former US Marine Trevor Reed, who was released from a Russian prison in April, had previously said he felt the White House was not doing enough to free Griner and Whelan.

In May, the State Department reclassified Griner as “wrongly held” and handed oversight of her case to the presidential envoy for hostage-taking. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied that Griner is being held as a hostage.

President Joe Biden spoke to Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, last month. He also sent a letter directly to Griner after she sent him a handwritten note begging for help to get her released.

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