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Russian judge sends US basketballer Griner to 9-years behind bars

High-profile prison swap between US and Russian governments expected to follow

A RUSSIAN judge convicted US basketball star Brittney Griner of drug possession and smuggling today, sentencing her to nine years in prison.

Griner reacted to the sentence with little emotion. She listened to the verdict from the defendant's cage, a blank stare on her face.

While recapping the evidence and giving her findings today, the judge said the 31-year-old Griner illegally brought drugs into Russia.

Before the unusually quick verdict was announced, Griner made a final appeal to the court. She said she had no intention to break the law by bringing vape cartridges with cannabis oil into the country when she flew to Moscow in February to play basketball in the city of Yekaterinburg.

“I want to apologise to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city of (Yekaterinburg) for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them,” Griner said, her voice cracking.

“I want to also apologise to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organisation back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home.”

Griner said she made “an honest mistake” in bringing the vape cartridges into Russia, adding: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.”

Griner said Yekaterinburg, a city east of the Ural Mountains, had become her “second home.”

“I had no idea that the team, the cities, the fans, my teammates would make such a great impression on me over the 6 1/2 years that I spent here,” she said.

“I remember vividly coming out of the gym and all the little girls that were in the stands there waiting on me, and that’s what kept making me come back here.”

Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko insisted that Griner packed the cannabis oil deliberately, and he asked the court to hand Griner a fine of 1 million rubles (about £13,400) in addition to the prison sentence.

Lawyers for the Phoenix Mercury centre and two-time Olympic gold medalist have sought to bolster Griner’s contention that she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage by mistake.

They presented character witnesses from the Yekaterinburg team that she plays for in the WNBA offseason and written testimony from a doctor who said he prescribed her cannabis for pain treatment from injuries sustained in her basketball career.

Her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, argued that Griner used the cannabis only in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal.

Attention now turns to the possibility of a high-stakes prisoner swap that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken proposed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Under the proposed deal, Griner and Paul Whelan, a US citizen imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction, would go free.

Russian officials have remained poker-faced about a possible deal and chafed at US statements about the case, saying a possible deal should be discussed through “quiet diplomacy without releases of speculative information.”

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