KHIMKI, Russia, Aug 4 (Reuters) – A Russian court on Thursday sentenced U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison after finding her guilty of deliberately bringing cannabis-infused vape cartridges into Russia despite them being illegal.
Her sentencing could pave the way for a U.S.-Russia prisoner swap that would include the 31-year-old athlete and an imprisoned Russian who was once a prolific arms dealer.
Griner earlier pleaded with a Russian judge not to “end her life” with a harsh prison sentence for bringing in vape cartridges containing hashish oil, before breaking down in tears in court.
The Russian prosecutor called for Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, to be sentenced to 9-1/2 years prison if she was found guilty of bringing illegal drugs into the country.
Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty but said she had neither intended to bring a banned substance to Russia nor to hurt anybody.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said in court before breaking down in tears.
“My parents taught me two important things: one, take ownership of your responsibilities and two, work hard for everything that you have. That’s why I pled guilty to my charges.”
The case threw the Texan athlete into the geopolitical maelstrom triggered when President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
With U.S.-Russian relations at their most strained since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden is under pressure to intervene on behalf of Americans held in Russia.
“I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” Griner said.
Cannabis is illegal in Russia for both medicinal and recreational purposes.