Russian prosecutors asked a court outside Moscow to sentence Brittney Griner to 9 1/2 years in prison as the American basketball star neared the end of a trial on drug charges Thursday.
The court was hearing closing arguments ahead of a verdict that could pave the way for a high-stakes prisoner swap between the United States and Russia.
Griner, 31, was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February; Russian authorities said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, admitted the canisters were hers. She said she took them to Russia unintentionally.
One of her lawyers, Alexander Boikov, told reporters during the trial that Griner was in a hurry as she was packing and that the vape cartridges ended up in her luggage by accident.
On Thursday, Griner was led into a cage inside the courtroom in handcuffs, wearing an olive-colored shirt. Before the proceedings began, she displayed a photo of her teammates from the Russian club she played for in the WNBA off-season.
The prosecutors asked for a 9 1/2-year jail term for Griner and a one-million ruble ($16,590) fine, considering her guilt fully proven, but her lawyer Maria Blagovolina called it “nonsense.”
Her defense team called into question some of the expert analysis used in the case and said Griner did not have proper interpreter access during her arrest. They also pointed out Griner’s many athletic accomplishments, including in Russia. Her lawyers reiterated that Griner has only used cannabis medically, and has never used it in Russia. They asked for Griner to be acquitted or be given the most lenient sentence possible.
In previous hearings, her defense team argued that, like many other international athletes, Griner, a 6-foot-9 native of Houston who plays for Russia’s Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company Ekaterinburg in the offseason, uses medicinal marijuana to help with injury pain.
Griner’s legal team has also tried to build her defense on her image as a role model, and positive contributions to global and Russian basketball.
The Kremlin has been accused of using Griner as a political pawn, while the Biden administration has been under growing pressure from her family and teammates to secure her release.
The U.S. government has proposed that Moscow release Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence for espionage, in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, according to two sources familiar with the matter.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that Russia responded in “bad faith” to the U.S. government’s offer with one of its own. “We don’t see it as a serious counteroffer,” she said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, last week — the highest-level diplomatic engagement between Washington and Moscow since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February — to urge the Kremlin to accept the U.S. offer. Blinken called it a “frank and direct conversation” but declined to characterize Lavrov’s response.
The Russians responded by urging the U.S. to refrain from speculation and pursue “quiet diplomacy” instead.
In May, the State Department reclassified Griner as having been “wrongfully detained” and transferred oversight of her case to the State Department’s presidential envoy for hostage affairs. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied Griner is being held as a hostage.
President Joe Biden spoke with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, last month. He also sent a letter directly to Griner after she sent him a handwritten note pleading for help to get her released.