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A Russian judge on Thursday convicted U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner of deliberately bringing hashish oil into the country and sentenced her to nine years in prison, even as Griner said she had no intention of committing a crime and had made an honest mistake in packing vape cartridges in her luggage.
Griner reacted to the sentence with little emotion. She listened to the verdict from the defendant's courtroom cage, a blank stare on her face.
Judge Anna Sotnikova said the time Griner has served in custody since her arrest in February at a Moscow airport would count toward her prison term. The judge also fined Griner $16,590, as the prosecutor in the case had demanded.
U.S. President Joe Biden, who has authorized top U.S. officials to try to negotiate a prisoner swap with Russia to secure the release of Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, characterized the basketball player's sentence as "unacceptable." Whelan was convicted on espionage charges, which he has consistently denied.
"I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates," Biden said in a statement. He said U.S. officials "will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible."
The U.S. contends that Russia has illegally detained both Whelan and Griner, but their detention comes at a low point in U.S.-Russia relations, with the United States leading Western allies in opposing Russia's February invasion of Ukraine and supplying Kyiv with a vast array of arms to fight Moscow's forces.
While recapping the evidence and reciting her findings Thursday night, the judge said 31-year-old Griner illegally brought drugs into Russia. The prosecutor in the case demanded a 9½-year term and along with the fine, while her lawyers pleaded for leniency.
Before the verdict was announced, Griner made a final appeal to the court. She said she had no intention to break the law by bringing vape cartridges with cannabis oil into the country as she flew to Moscow to play basketball in the city of Yekaterinburg.
Griner said she had made "an honest mistake, and I hope in your ruling it does not end my life."
"I want to apologize 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," Griner said, her voice cracking. "I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA [the Women's National Basketball Association], and my amazing spouse back at home."
She held up a picture of herself with her Russian teammates. During her weeks-long trial, Griner has said that in the past she has used the vape cartridges of hashish oil for pain management. Cannabis is illegal in Russia for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
Griner's lawyers pleaded for leniency in the case, comparing her renown as a basketball star to world-class sprinter Usain Bolt and Formula One race car driver Michael Schumacher.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, discussed the possible prisoner exchange last week but no deal was reached pending the outcome of the Griner trial.
Reacting to the verdict Blinken tweeted "The Russian court's conviction and sentencing of U.S. citizen Brittney Griner spotlights our concerns with the Russian government's use of wrongful detentions. I am committed to ensuring we do everything we can to bring home Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan as soon as possible."
U.S. officials say they are willing to free Russian international arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the U.S. in exchange for Griner and Whelan. News reports say Russia is also calling for the release of another Russian, a convicted murderer sentenced to life imprisonment in December in Germany.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.