(CNN) –– Brittney Griner, an American basketball player detained in Russia, was sentenced Thursday to 9 years in prison in a Moscow court for drug smuggling with criminal intent. The sentence comes amid concerns that the WNBA star is being used as a political pawn in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Judge Anna Sotnikova also fined the athlete 1 million rubles (approximately $16,400). And she added that the court took into account her partial admission of guilt, remorse for the act, state of health and charitable activities. Prosecutors in the case had asked for 9 1/2 years in prison in closing arguments.
Griner was detained in February at a Moscow airport when authorities found less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage, according to Russian prosecutors.
Brittney Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, said in a post-conviction statement that the court ignored all the evidence they presented and that they will appeal the decision.
“We are very disappointed by the verdict. As legal professionals, we believe that the court should be fair to everyone, regardless of nationality. The court completely ignored all the defense evidence. And more importantly, the statement of guilt,” they said in the statement.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope your mistake doesn’t end my life here.”
Before the ruling was known, Griner apologized to the court and asked for leniency in an emotional speech. “She never wanted to hurt anyone, never wanted to endanger the Russian population, never wanted to break any laws here,” the athlete told the Khimki city court. “I made an honest mistake and I hope her ruling doesn’t end my life here. I know everyone is still talking about political pawn and politics. But I hope that’s far from this courtroom,” she continued.
He then insisted that “I did not intend to break any Russian law. I did not intend. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime,” he added.
“That is why I have pleaded guilty to my charges. I understand everything that has been said against me, the charges against me and that is why I have pleaded guilty. But I did not intend to violate any Russian law,” he added.
In early July, Griner pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges in an attempt to mitigate his sentence. His arrest and subsequent trial sparked international outrage, while the US State Department has called his detention unlawful.
The verdict comes about six months after the 31-year-old star athlete was arrested and accused by Russian prosecutors of trying to smuggle less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in her luggage.
In the midst of the athlete’s trial in Russia, CNN reported exclusively on July 27 that the Joe Biden government offered Russia a prisoner swap that includes Griner and fellow American detainee Paul Whelan, in exchange for a drug trafficker. Russian weapons who pays a 25-year sentence in the US A proposal that, the basketball player’s lawyers said at the time, took them by surprise.
Biden: Conviction “is unacceptable”
US President Joe Biden said Thursday that Griner’s prison sentence is “unacceptable.” “Today, American citizen Brittney Griner 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 immediately release her so she can be with her.” his wife, loved ones, friends and teammates,” Biden said in a statement.
The case against Brittney Griner in Russia
Griner was detained on February 17 at Sheremetyevo International Airport after authorities discovered less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage, according to Russian prosecutors.
Griner testified at his trial last week that no lawyer was present and that his rights were not explained to him, which Russian law says must happen within three hours. Those rights would include the right to know what she was suspected of and the right to have access to a defense lawyer from the moment she was detained, including the possibility of a private meeting before the first interrogation by the authorities.
In addition, Griner said that she signed documents that were not clear to her and that she had to use Google translate on her phone to try to understand what was happening.
Griner’s detention, search and arrest were “wrong,” Alexander Boykov, one of the basketball player’s lawyers, said at one of the hearings. This Thursday Boykov argued that the basketball player did not have the opportunity to properly review the court documents. He said that the Russian constitution guarantees everyone the right to use their native language and the free choice of the language of communication.
Also in closing arguments Thursday, Maria Blagovolina, the athlete’s attorney, argued that Griner never used marijuana in Russia and never intended to. He had no need to bring the vape cartridges into the country, she added.
And he explained that all this confirms the complete absence of intention in his actions. Even if Griner ever used medical marijuana, it was only at his home in Arizona, unusually and only by prescription, he added. He could not know how strict the laws were in Russia, Blagovolina added.
In her testimony last week, the Olympic medalist said she was aware of Russia’s drug laws and that the cannabis oil ended up in her luggage because she “packed under stress” in a hurry. “I still don’t understand to this day how she got into my bags,” Griner said.
Brittney Griner: I know and respect the laws of Russia
In that statement, Griner “confirmed that he had a medical prescription for the use of medical cannabis,” which “is quite a popular treatment among professional athletes. He emphasized that he never planned to bring it to Russia or use it,” explained lawyer Maria Blagovolina to the journalists after last week’s hearing.
A knee injury left her in a wheelchair for four months, Griner told the court, and she used the substance for swollen knee and ankle joints. The athlete also insisted that she did not use it before tournaments to avoid possible disqualification.
“No, I would never risk that. I never wanted to affect my team,” Griner said. Previously, her lawyers pointed out that the basketball player underwent a drug test and the results came out clean.
Griner “explained to the court that he knows and respects the laws of Russia and never intended to violate them,” Blagovolina said. Griner also said in court that she enjoyed playing basketball in the country during the WNBA offseason and that her club, UMMC Ekaterinburg, became a second home to her, the attorney added.
The proposal of a trade by Brittney Griner
In the midst of Griner’s arrest and trial, several months of internal debate in the Biden administration culminated in a US offer in late July to trade Griner and Whelan — whose prison sentence in Russia was denounced as unfair. by Washington — by convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, people with knowledge of the proposal told CNN.
The plan received the backing of President Joe Biden and overrides opposition from the Justice Department, which generally objects to prisoner swaps, according to the sources.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Biden was “directly involved” and signed the proposal “presented in Moscow.” But he declined to provide further details or confirm that Bout is part of the proposal. Blinken said that he also intends to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the coming days. This would be his first conversation since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Griner’s attorneys, Blagovolina and Boykov, first learned of the potential trade through news reports, they said at the time. Although they did not participate in those discussions, the two noted that they would be pleased with any productive outcome.
CNN’s Chris Liakos, Travis Caldwell, Dakin Andone, Abby Phillip, Kaitlan Collins, Evan Perez, Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood, Michael Conte, Christian Sierra, DJ Judd, Shawna Mizelle, AnneClaire Stapleton and Brynn Wierbowski contributed to this report. .