The Russian justice has sentenced this Thursday to nine years in prison to the American basketball player Brittney Griner, arrested last February for drug possession. Last month, the 31-year-old, winner of two Olympic golds, pleaded guilty to transporting cannabis oil cartridges in her luggage. Her arrest, made public after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, was politically tinged from the start. The player’s conviction may end a prisoner swap that involves freeing Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as “the merchant of death.”
At the court hearing in Khimki, northwest of Moscow, the prosecutor had requested a nine and a half year sentence, bringing the sentence very close to that maximum. In addition, Griner must pay a fine of one million rubles, about 16,000 euros. As the judge quickly read her sentence, Griner listened to the ruling through an interpreter. Her legal team has reported that she will appeal the penalty. Her agent has criticized the harshness of the sentence: “It goes to show what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn.”
The Griner case has acquired a political dimension in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Russian authorities waited for the outbreak of the war to announce his arrest. The player’s hopes are now pinned not so much on the appeal as on a diplomatic agreement that would allow her repatriation and release. The Secretary of State of the United States, Antony Blinken, said last week that he would talk with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, to discuss a possible exchange of prisoners that included the player, but the last call between the two did not bring news. on this matter, a matter that is usually handled with the utmost discretion.
US media, however, have revealed that talks about a possible exchange began in June, when Blinken offered to hand over Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for the release of Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, 52, another US prisoner. who was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2020 on charges of espionage.
Whelan, the first American convicted of espionage in Russia since the fall of the USSR, assured after his conviction that he was the victim of a “fabricated” “political case” to exchange him for Russian prisoners serving sentences in the United States.
Since the Cold War, the exchange of prisoners, previously focused on spies, has been a frequent practice between Washington and Moscow. The harsh sentences that Russian courts hand down against foreigners support this practice. The last barter occurred in 2020, with the delivery of the American Trevor Reed, a Marine veteran sentenced to nine years for violence against a police officer, in exchange for a Russian pilot who was serving a sentence in the United States.
The exchange for Bout, 55, could generate controversy. He is not just any Russian prisoner. The death merchant He is a trafficker convicted of providing weapons to terrorist organizations. He was sentenced in 2012 to a sentence of 25 years. His figure inspired the movie The Lord of the war, starring Nicholas Cage. His capture took years of work for US authorities. He was detained in Thailand by the DEA, the US drug enforcement agency, and his extradition took two and a half years. Freeing him would be a bitter pill for the United States.
US President Joe Biden has lamented Griner’s conviction shortly after they met. “Today, American citizen Brittney Griner has received a prison sentence that is yet another reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It is unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so that she can be with her wife, her loved ones, her friends and her teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every avenue possible to get Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
Blinken has expressed himself in the same sense: “Nothing in today’s decision changes our consideration that Brittney Griner is unjustly detained and we will continue working to bring home Brittney and the also unjustly detained United States citizen Paul Whelan”, he said in a release.
Griner was arrested in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport after police found two canisters of cannabis oil in her luggage. Her lawyer, Alexander Boykov, stated that the athlete recognized that they were hers, but that she brought them to Russia by mistake.
The player has also received multiple expressions of support from colleagues and directors of the American women’s professional basketball league (WNBA) and the men’s professional basketball league (NBA).
Griner became the star of the Phoenix Mercury since joining the team in 2013. Since 2018 he has also played for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian first division, taking advantage of the break in the WNBA seasons. The basketball player has assured that she did not intend to break the law and that her parents have taught her to assume her responsibilities: “That is why I pleaded guilty to the charges against me, but I had no intention of breaking Russian law” , has said. “I want the court to understand that it was an unintentional mistake that I made while I was stressed trying to recover from covid and trying to get back into my team. I hope that the ruling does not end my life, ”she has said in her closing argument before the court.
Her voice trembling and visibly tearful, Griner said she understood the sentence before being led out of the courthouse. “I love my family,” she has said as she walked out in handcuffs, according to her Reuters. In statements collected by said agency, another Griner lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, said outside the courtroom: “She is very upset, very stressed. She can barely speak. It’s a difficult time for her.” “When we saw Brittney on Tuesday, we said, ‘See you Thursday.’ She replied: ‘See you on judgment day.’ So it looks like she was right,” Blagovolina added.
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