Russian court convicts US basketball star Brittney Griner

Russian court convicts US basketball star Brittney Griner

A Moscow court has convicted the US basketball player Brittney Griner on drug charges, sentencing her to nine years in prison and a 1 m rouble fine in a politically charged verdict that could lead to a prisoner swap with the US.

Griner, a basketball talent who played in Russia during off-seasons of the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested in February for possession of cannabis in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport.

Her trial took place just days before Russia invaded Ukraine and frantic backdoor negotiations between the US and Russian intelligence services took place in a small courthouse outside Moscow city limits.

Her formal conviction, which was a foregone conclusion, would be a necessary step towards a prisoner exchange. US officials say that Russia wants to swap Griner and Paul Whelan, a former US marine arrested in 2020 on spying charges, for the convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.

Griner's defence team said they were disappointed by the verdict and would appeal.

The US has classified Griner as wrongly detained, launching a process similar to hostage negotiations with Iran and other countries, while she pleaded guilty to the drug charges. A senior US embassy official attended Thursday s hearing and verdict, where police spetsnaz special forces and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the hallways.

The prosecuting attorney asked for a nine-and-a-half year prison sentence for Griner and a hefty fine, nearly the maximum in her case.

In an emotional closing statement on Thursday, Griner apologized to her teammates and told the courtroom that she had made an honest mistake, pled guilty to the charges but I had no intent of breaking the law. She has also rejected the political implications of her case, making an emotional appeal directly to the judge, Anna Sotnikova.

She said that everyone keeps talking about politics and political pawns, but I hope that is far from this courtroom. It was not shown in the end.

Prosecutors in the Russian court said Griner's arrest on drug charges was fully proven. Defense lawyers pointed out irregularities in the investigation and described the pressures on the basketball star, whom she compared to sprinter Usain Bolt.

A conviction is usually required in cases that could lead to a prisoner exchange because it would allow the Kremlin to issue a pardon or reduce a sentence without blatantly interfering in an ongoing trial.

A lawyer for Whelan told the Guardian on Thursday that he was certain that a trade will eventually be made, but added that a final agreement did not seem to have been reached. He claimed that the US said that Russia offered a trade for Bout in 2020 after Whelan was convicted of spying charges.

Russia is trying to find the freedom of Bout, who is believed to have armed the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, Charles Taylor's regime in Liberia, Unita in Angola, various Congolese factions and Abu Sayyaf, a militant Islamic group in the Philippines.

He was arrested in a US sting operation in a luxury hotel in Bangkok and sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012. His case has become an unlikely cause c l bre among some senior Russian officials.

Russia has already exchanged Trevor Reed, a former marine in Moscow, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot who was held in the US for nearly a decade on a drug smuggling conviction. The exchange at an airfield in Turkey recalled a Cold War thriller, as the two men walked past each other to board planes back to their respective countries.

Griner has also said that she is terrified of being kept in Russia for ever. I never meant to hurt anybody, as stated in her closing statement. I didn't mean to put the Russian population in jeopardy. I didn't mean to break any laws here. I made an honest mistake and I hope that it doesn't end my life here.