Brittney Griner: Russian court jails basketball star for nine years over drug charges

Brittney Griner's arrest came just days before Russia invaded Ukraine. Credit: AP/ Pool Reuters

A Russian court has convicted US basketball star Brittney Griner of drug possession and sentenced her to nine years in prison.

The 31-year-old Olympic medalist earlier pleaded with a Russian judge not to "end her life" with a harsh prison sentence for bringing in vape cartridges containing hashish oil. She said it was an honest mistake.

The judge rejected her defence lawyer's arguments and fined her one million rubles (£13,430) fine.

Brittney Griner is escorted in a court room prior to a hearing in Khimki, just outside of Moscow. Credit: AP

US President Joe Biden denounced Thursday's verdict and sentence as “unacceptable”. “I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” he said.

Biden added that he would continue to work to bring home Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.

Earlier in the session, with a conviction all but certain, an emotional Griner made a final appeal to the court for leniency.

She said she had no intention of breaking the law by bringing vape cartridges with cannabis oil 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,” the basketball star said.

“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.”

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Under the law in Russia, where cannabis is illegal, the 31-year-old faced up to 10 years in prison, but judges have considerable flexibility in the severity of sentencing.

Her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, argued that Griner used the cannabis only in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal. She stressed that Griner was packing quickly after a gruelling flight and suffering from the effects of Covid.

But prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko insisted that Griner packed the cannabis oil deliberately.

In Russia, fewer than one-percent of defendants in criminal cases are acquitted and acquittals can be overturned.