Russian prosecutors request 9 1/2-year sentence for Brittney Griner

ByESPN.com news services via via logo
August 04, 2022, 8:09 AM

Russian prosecutors have asked a court outside Moscow to sentence Brittney Griner to 9½ years in prison on cannabis possession charges.

The prosecutors' request was made during closing arguments Thursday in Griner's trial, nearly six months after the American basketball star was arrested at a Moscow airport in a case that has reached the highest levels of U.S.-Russia diplomacy.

Griner's lawyer Maria Blagovolina said a verdict in the case is expected later Thursday. Blagovolina asked the court to acquit Griner, noting that she had no past criminal record and hailing her role in "the development of Russian basketball."

If the court does deem it necessary to punish her, Blagovolina said, then Griner -- who faces a maximum sentence of 10 years -- should receive the most lenient punishment.

Lawyers for the Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist have pursued strategies to bolster Griner's contention that she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage due to hasty packing. They have presented character witnesses from the Russian team that she plays for in the WNBA offseason and written testimony from a doctor who said he prescribed her cannabis for pain treatment. Alexander Boykov, her other lawyer, also said some of the case files were drawn up in violation of the law.

Boykov also emphasized Griner's role in helping her Yekaterinburg team win multiple championships, noting that she was loved and admired by her teammates. He told the judge that a conviction would undermine Russia's efforts to develop national sports and make Moscow's call to depoliticize sports sound shallow.

The lawyer added that even after her arrest, Griner won the sympathy of both her guards and prison inmates, who supported her by shouting, "Brittney, everything will be OK!" when she went on walks at the jail.

Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko insisted that Griner packed the cannabis oil deliberately and asked the court to hand Briner a fine of 1 million rubles (about $16,700) in addition to the prison sentence.

Assuming she does not go free, attention will turn to the high-stakes possibility of a prisoner swap.

Before her trial began in July, the U.S. State Department designated Griner as "wrongfully detained," moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government's chief hostage negotiator.

Last week, in an extraordinary move, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction, would go free.

The Lavrov-Blinken call marked the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops into Ukraine more than five months ago. The direct outreach over Griner is at odds with U.S. efforts to isolate the Kremlin.

According to ESPN and multiple reports, the proposal envisions trading Griner and Whelan for the notorious arms trader Viktor Bout. It underlines the public pressure that the White House has faced to get Griner released.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Russia has made a "bad faith" response to the U.S. government's offer, a counteroffer that American officials don't regard as serious. She declined to elaborate.

Russian officials have scoffed at U.S. statements about the case, saying they show a disrespect for Russian law. They remained poker-faced, urging Washington to discuss the issue through "quiet diplomacy without releases of speculative information."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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