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MOSCOW — A Russian prosecutor asked a judge to find Brittney Griner guilty on drug charges and to sentence her to serve 9 years and 6 months in a prison colony, as the two sides delivered closing remarks in Griner’s month-long trial.
Griner’s defense attorney called for her to be acquitted, or for the court to show leniency in any punishment she’s given. The basketball star also spoke on her own behalf.
Thursday’s court session then took a brief recess before the verdict is announced — likely around 10:45 a.m. ET.
Griner, 31, has now been detained for 24 weeks, after authorities at Sheremetyevo International Airport outside Moscow found cannabis vape cartridges in her luggage. She could face up to 10 years in prison if she’s convicted of drug charges.
The Olympian and NBA champion says she must have put the cannabis in her bag by mistake. Her defense team notes that Griner has a medical marijuana card in Arizona to help her cope with injuries sustained over years of competition. But personal cannabis possession is illegal under any circumstances in Russia, similar to U.S. federal law.
In her final statement to the judge, Griner reiterated that she never intended to break any laws or hurt anyone.
She apologized to her Russian teammates for any damage she may have caused, adding that “this is my second home and all I wanted to do was win champsionships and make them proud.”
“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said.
The court’s judgment is only one factor deciding Griner’s fate. She’s also at the center of a potential prisoner swap that could see the U.S. release notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. But Russian officials have said any such deal would have to wait until after Griner’s trial is over.
Some legal experts have described Griner’s guilty plea as a strategy for a shorter trial, and more lenient verdict — especially since Russian criminal courts reportedly have a conviction rate of 99%.
Griner was arrested in February, one week before Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Her detention quickly led to speculation that Putin’s government wants to use her as leverage against the U.S. Griner alluded to that in her closing remarks to the judge on Thursday.
“I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” she said.
Here’s a quick recap of Griner’s ordeal:
- Feb. 17: Griner is detained at the airport near Moscow
- May 3: The U.S. State Department declares Griner wrongfully detained
- May 28: U.S. Ambassador to Russia John J. Sullivan calls Griner a “bargaining chip” amid talk of a possible prisoner exchange
- July 1: Prosecutors unseal their case in court as the trial begins
- July 7: Griner pleads guilty to drug charges as talk of a prisoner swap grows
- July 27: Griner testifies, saying she inadvertently brought the cannabis to Russia
- July 27: The U.S. says it offered Russia a deal to free Griner and another jailed American, Paul Whelan
- Aug. 4: Closing arguments begin
Griner is a star center for the Phoenix Mercury. But like many WNBA players, she plays in overseas leagues during the U.S. league’s offseason, earning far more than her WNBA salary. In recent years, she has played for UMMC Ekaterinburg, a Russian team owned by oligarch Iskander Makhmudov. The team has had longstanding ties to Griner’s U.S. club.
Griner was returning to her Russian team from the U.S. when she was detained.
The effort to free Griner has grown from her fans and fellow basketball players to include a much broader circle. This summer, dozens of rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, the National Organization for Women and National LGBTQ Task Force wrote a letter to President Biden urging him to treat her case with urgency.
Maynes reported from Russia. Chappell and Treisman reported from Washington, D.C.