American WNBA star Brittney Griner was convicted in a Russian court Thursday of smuggling drugs with criminal intent, amid concerns she is being used as a political pawn in Russia’s war
Griner faces up to 10 years in jail for the charge, and prosecutors asked for 9.5 years in closing arguments.
Prior to the verdict, Griner apologized to the court and asked for leniency in an emotional speech.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” Griner said in the Khimki city courthouse. “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.
“I want to say again that I had no intent on breaking any Russian laws. I had no intent. I did not conspire or plan to commit this crime,” she added.
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 charges last month in what her lawyers say was an attempt to take responsibility and receive a lenient sentence.
The US State Department maintains Griner is wrongfully detained. Her supporters have called for her release and asked the US to take further steps to try to free her from the country, perhaps as part of a proposed prisoner swap
In closing arguments Thursday, defense lawyer Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm, argued that Griner never used marijuana in Russia and that she never had the intention of doing so. She had no need to bring the vape cartridges to Russia, the lawyer added.
All this confirms the complete absence of intent in her actions, Blagovolina argued. Even if Griner ever used medical marijuana, it was only at home back in Arizona, rare and only with a doctor’s prescription, she added. She couldn’t have known how strict the laws were in Russia, Blagovolina said.
Griner arrived at court in handcuffs Thursday and was escorted by Russian officers into the defendant’s cage. Once uncuffed, she spoke with her legal team and then held up a photo of the UMMC Ekaterinburg basketball team, the Russian squad she played for during the WNBA offseason.