RUSSIA. (CW44 News At 10 | UKTN) – WNBA star Brittney Griner was convicted of willfully smuggling drugs into Russia and was sentenced Thursday to nine years in prison in a case raising concerns that she is being used as a political pawn in Russia. the Russian war against Ukraine.
Judge Anna Sotnikova of the Khimki District Court pronounced the verdict and fined Griner 1 million rubles, or about $16,400. She said the court took into account Griner’s partial admission of guilt, remorse for the act, state of health and charitable activities. Prosecutors had requested that she be sentenced to 9.5 years in prison.
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Prior to the verdict, Griner apologized to the court and asked for clemency in an emotional speech.
“It was never my intention to hurt anyone, it was never my intention to endanger the Russian people, it was never my intention to break any laws here,” Griner said. “I made an honest mistake and I hope in your statement that my life does not end here. I know everyone keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope, that’s far from this courtroom.
“I want to say again that it was not my intention to break Russian laws. I had no intention. I did not collude or intend to commit this crime,” she added.
After the verdict, Griner told a UKTN producer as she left the court, “I love my family.”
The verdict comes about six months after the 31-year-old was arrested at a Moscow airport and accused by Russian prosecutors of trying to smuggle less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. The two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug possession last month, saying she accidentally packed the drugs while she was in a hurry.
Griner’s lawyers Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov said in a written statement they will appeal the decision and criticized the court for ignoring their evidence. They have 10 days to appeal.
“We are very disappointed with the verdict. As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone regardless of nationality. The court completely disregarded all evidence from the defense, especially the admission of guilt,” they said in the statement. “This contradicts existing legal practice. Taking into account the scope of the substance (not to mention the flaws of expertise) and the plea, the verdict is absolutely unreasonable. We will certainly appeal.”
Out of court, Boykov said the average time in prison for this type of crime is five years, adding that nearly a third of those convicted are on parole.
Griner is not doing well today, said Blagovolina, a partner at law firm Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners. The defense is hopeful Griner can talk to her family next week. Blagovolina added that Griner will return to the detention center where she is being held.
Zin comes amid tense US-Russia relations
The harsh verdict comes against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the country’s saber clashing with the US and Europe. The US State Department maintains that Griner is being wrongly detained, and US officials have offered a possible prisoner swap with Russia in an effort to get her home safely.
US embassy chargé d’affaires in Russia Elizabeth Rood said the verdict was a “miscarriage of justice” and US President Joe Biden said the lengthy sentence was “unacceptable”.
“Today US citizen Brittney Griner was given a prison sentence that is another reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongly holding Brittney. It is unacceptable and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates,” Biden said in a statement.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized the Russian justice system more broadly, saying the sentence “highlights our deep concern about the Russian justice system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to further its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns.” are used.”
He said the US is working to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, a US citizen detained by Russia since 2018 for alleged espionage. “This is an absolute priority of mine and that of the ministry,” said Blinken.
It is now “on the Russian side” whether Griner’s conviction will open new doors for prisoner swap negotiations, said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
“We are still open to seriously and positively consider our proposal, and if that means on the Russian side they feel they are more empowered to do so, then so be it,” he said. Kirby to reporters at the White House briefing Thursday.
Kirby reiterated that the US position remains that it wants Russia “to put the deal on the table because it’s a good one, it’s a fair one, and it will bring Paul and Brittney home.”
UKTN National Security Analyst Steve Hall said the harsh verdict was not a surprise, arguing that Russia’s legal proceedings are not legitimate.
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“These are all achievements in Russia. There was never any doubt about what was going to happen,” he said. “What Vladimir Putin is trying to do is basically drive up Ms. Griner’s negotiating price.”
Last week, UKTN reported that the Biden administration was proposing a prisoner swap with Russia, offering to release a convicted Russian arms dealer, Viktor Bout, in exchange for Griner and Whelan. Russian officials went against the US offer, multiple sources familiar with the discussions said, but US officials did not accept the request as a legitimate counter-offer.
The Kremlin warned on Tuesday that US “megaphone diplomacy” will not help negotiate a prisoner swap involving Griner. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow believes these talks should be “discreet”.
Griner’s WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, will play against the Connecticut Sun at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday night. The Mercury released a statement calling the verdict “a sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare” of her detention.
“We are inspired every day by the power of BG and we are determined to keep her publicly top-of-mind until she is safely back on American soil. We will not let her forget. We are BG.”
In a joint statement, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver criticized the verdict and sentence as “unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected”.
“The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and we hope we are nearing the end of this process to finally bring BG to the United States,” they said.
Defense asked for leniency in closing pleas
Thursday’s trial began shortly after Griner arrived handcuffed, escorted by Russian officers to the defendant’s cage. Once detached, she spoke to her legal team, then held up a photo of the UMMC Ekaterinburg basketball team, the Russian squad she played for during the WNBA outdoor season.
Finally, Blagovolina argued that Griner never used marijuana in Russia, nor did she intend to do so. She didn’t have to bring the vape cartridges to Russia, the lawyer added. All this confirms the complete absence of intent in her actions, argued Blagovolina.
Even if Griner ever used medical marijuana, it was only at home in Arizona, rare and only on a doctor’s prescription, she added. She couldn’t have known how strict the laws were in Russia, Blagovolina said.
Boykov also argued that Griner had no opportunity to properly examine the court documents. He said that the Russian constitution guarantees everyone the right to use their mother tongue and the free choice of the language of communication.
Boykov cited a case where a language interpreter provided to Griner flipped through a lengthy document submitted by a researcher for translation and then told Griner, “Basically, that means you’re guilty.”
Throughout the trial, Griner’s lawyers have advanced arguments that undermine the prosecution’s case, alleging that her detention was not handled properly after she was detained on February 17 by staff at Sheremetyevo International Airport.
Her detention, search and arrest were “inappropriate,” Boykov said last week, noting that more details would be revealed during closing arguments.
After being apprehended at the airport, Griner had to sign documents that she didn’t quite understand, she testified. At first, she said, she used Google translate on her phone, but later she was moved to another room where her phone was taken and had to sign more documents.
No lawyer was present, Griner testified, and her rights were not explained to her. Those rights included access to a lawyer once she was detained and the right to know what she was suspected of doing. Under Russian law, she should have been advised of her rights within three hours of her arrest.
On Tuesday, at the seventh hearing in her case, a defense expert testified that the examination of the substance in Griner’s vape cartridges was not in accordance with Russian law. Blagovolina also told UKTN that her team’s experts identified “a few defects” in the machines used to measure the substance.
At the trial, Griner testified that she has a doctor’s prescription for medical cannabis and had no intention of bringing the drug to Russia. After her detention in February, she was tested for drugs and was clean, her lawyers said earlier.
“We continue to maintain that, through indiscretion, she hastily packed her suitcase and paid no attention to the fact that substances authorized for use in the United States ended up in this suitcase and arrived in the Russian Federation,” Boykov said. . of the Moscow Legal Center, said.
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