Politics Britney Griner convicted on drug charges, sentenced to nine...

Britney Griner convicted on drug charges, sentenced to nine years in Russian prison

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A Russian judge sentenced Britney Griner to nine years in a penal colony after the WNBA star and two-time United States Olympic gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug possession.

Griner, who entered the guilty plea weeks ago, apologized to his family and wife.

“I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your judgment, it will not end my life here,” Griner said to the judge.

Now that the trial is over, negotiations between Washington and Moscow to free Griner are expected to continue during a period of tension between the two countries.

Griner, who has played for Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2014 during the WNBA offseason, was arrested on February 17 at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Russian authorities said she carried vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage; Griner said during the trial in Khmiki, Russia, that she had accidentally packed them in a hurry and pleaded guilty “without intention”. However, the court held that she committed the crime knowingly.

“The hard work my parents instilled in me brought me here in Ekaterinburg to play for the best Euroleague and Russian team,” Griner said Thursday from a cage inside the courtroom. “I want to apologize to my teammates, the club, the fans and the city (of Ekaterinburg) for the mistake I made and the shame I have caused.

“This is my second home. I just wanted to win a championship and make them proud.”

Experts in the Russian legal system – which has a 99% conviction rate – said Griner could face a maximum sentence of 10 years if he admitted the violation.

The lead prosecutor against Griner asked the judge to sentence him to nine years and six months in prison.

“I know everyone talks about ‘political pawns’ and politics. But I hope it’s away from this courtroom,” Griner said.

Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, Griner’s lawyers in Russia, earlier advocated leniency in a statement. The defense team presented written testimony from character witnesses from her Russian team and a doctor who said he recommended cannabis to her to treat pain.

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More about Cannabis:The use of Britney Griner is common in America. But Russia’s drug laws are ‘strict’.

Timeline:Here’s what’s happened since the WNBA star was detained

“Considering the nature of her case, the minor amount of substance and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and not result in a serious sentence,” they said.

Griner’s lawyers called the ruling “absolutely unreasonable” and said it was not responsible for his plea. They will file an appeal.

Griner, 31, won the 2014 WNBA title in her second season with the Phoenix Mercury, the only WNBA team she has played for. She is a two-time scoring champion and has led the league in blocks eight times. She also won gold for Team USA women’s basketball at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo.

In a joint statement, the WNBA and the NBA said: “Today’s verdict and sentence are unjustified and unfortunate… Our hope is that we are nearing the end of this process to finally bring BG home to the United States.”

Griner’s arrest was not made public until about three weeks later. Americans arrested abroad usually have consular access – staff at the nearest US embassy can provide legal assistance. Griner was unable to meet with any US government representative until March 23.

On May 3, the US State Department officially classified her as “wrongfully detained” and her case was transferred to the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. Her trial, dubbed “Sham” by those with expertise in the Russian legal system, began on July 1. Prosecutors argued that Griner’s luggage contained less than a gram of marijuana.

The US Griner and fellow American Paul Whalen, who is also classified as “wrongfully detained”, will secure the early release through a prisoner swap – which brought Trevor Reid back from Russia earlier this year. Whalen has been in custody since 2018 and is serving a 16-year sentence on charges of spying for the US government.

“The prison sentence that American citizen Britney Griner has received is one more reminder of what the world already knows: Russia is wrongfully detaining Britney,” President Joe Biden said in a statement issued shortly after Griner’s sentencing. “It is unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates.

“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Britney and Paul Whalen home safely as soon as possible.”

The State Department, in an extraordinary move last week, announced the existence of a “substantial offer” to release Griner and Whalen. The prisoner swap revolved around the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed “The Merchant of Death”. Last Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

The war and sanctions imposed by the United States on Russia have increased tensions between the two countries. Griner’s supporters at home have called her a “political pawn”.

Griner’s representatives released excerpts of his July 4 letter to President Joe Biden. The Texas native wrote to Biden: “I fear I may be here forever. Please do everything you can to bring us home.”

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called Britney’s wife Cheryl Griner later that week for the first time since her arrest. Cheryl Griner has repeatedly called on the government to increase the urgency of returning her partner.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned after the second day of Griner’s trial that “attempts by the American side to raise a public voice … do not help in the practical settlement of the issues.”

Blinken said in a statement on Thursday: “This move highlights our significant concerns about Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of false detention to advance its own agenda by using individuals as political pawns.

“Nothing about today’s decision changes our determination that Brittney Griner has been wrongfully detained, and that we will continue to work to bring Brittney and her fellow wrongfully detained US citizen Paul Whalen home. This is my and the department’s absolute priority. ”

Contributed by: Associated Press

Follow Chris Bumbaka on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

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