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Russian court finds WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty on drug charges

US’ Women’s National Basketball Association (NBA) basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, stands inside a defendants’ cage before a court hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022. 

Kirill Kudryavtsev | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – A Russian court on Thursday found Brittney Griner guilty on drug charges, as the U.S. government scrambles to secure the WNBA star’s release.

Her sentencing is expected later Thursday.

The 31-year-old Griner, who plays professional basketball in Russia during the WNBA offseason, was arrested in February at a Russian airport on accusations that she was smuggling vape cartridges with cannabis oil.

Under Russian law, the charge carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. During closing arguments, Russian prosecutors asked the court to sentence her to nine-and-a-half years in prison.

Last month, Griner pleaded guilty to the charges but said that she had unintentionally packed the cannabis canisters in her suitcase because she was in a hurry.

The court’s decision comes one week after the Biden administration confirmed it made an offer to the Russian government for the release of Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.

“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters last week.

The top U.S. diplomat also said he would discuss the offer with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in what would be the first known conversation between the two since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine.

“This is delicate work,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters during a White House press briefing. “We’ve made a proposal, and we urge the Russians to move positively on that proposal so we can get these two individuals home.”

“The details of it, I think are best left between us and our Russian counterparts,” Kirby said.

‘I’m terrified I might be here forever’

US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner stands inside a defendants’ cage before a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on July 26, 2022. 

Alexander Zemlianichenko | AFP | Getty Images

Days before she pleaded guilty last month, Griner penned a letter to Biden asking for his direct help with her case.

“I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever,” the professional athlete wrote in a July 5 letter.

“I realize you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and … other American detainees. Please do all you can to bring us home,” Griner wrote.

After receiving the letter, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris called the WNBA star’s wife, Cherelle Griner. Biden also wrote a response to Griner that U.S. diplomats hand delivered in Moscow.

Biden reassured her wife that he is working to secure Griner’s release as soon as possible, according to a White House readout of the call. He also said on the call that he is working to release Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence in Russia.

Whelan was arrested in 2018 on charges of acting as a spy for the United States. At the time he was arrested, Whelan was visiting Russia to attend a wedding, according to his brother, David Whelan. 

Last month, Biden signed an executive order that will expand the administration’s available tools to deter hostage-taking and the wrongful detention of U.S. nationals.

The executive order, known as “Bolstering Efforts to Bring Hostages and Wrongfully Detained United States Nationals Home,” will authorize the imposition of financial sanctions and visa bans on people involved in hostage-taking.

“This executive order reflects the administration’s commitment not just to the issues generally but to the families in particular, and it has been informed by the government’s regular engagements with them,” said a senior Biden administration official last month, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to share details about the new executive order.

In April, Russia agreed to release former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed in a prisoner exchange with the United States.

Reed was accused of assaulting a Russian officer and detained by authorities there in 2019. He was later sentenced to nine years in a Russian prison. Reed and his family have maintained his innocence, and the U.S. government described him as unjustly imprisoned.

For Reed’s release, Biden agreed to free Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States.

This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.


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