Prosecutors have asked a Russian court to convict American basketball star Brittney Griner and sentence her to nine and a half years in prison at closing arguments in her drug possession trial.
The trial neared its end nearly six months after Griner’s arrest at a Moscow airport in a case that has reached the highest levels of US-Russia diplomacy, with Washington proposing a prisoner exchange.
A conviction is all but certain, given that Russian courts rarely acquit defendants and 31-year-old Griner has admitted to having vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage, but judges have latitude on sentencing.
Lawyers for the Phoenix Mercury player and two-time Olympic gold medallist have pursued strategies to bolster Griner’s contention that she had no criminal intent and that the canisters ended up in her luggage due to hasty packing.
They have presented character witnesses from the Russian team she plays for during the WNBA offseason and written evidence from a doctor who said he prescribed her cannabis for pain treatment.
Her lawyer Maria Blagovolina argued that Griner took the cartridges with her to Russia inadvertently and only used cannabis to treat pain from injuries sustained in her career. She said she used it only in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal.
Ms Blagovolina emphasised that Griner was packing in haste after a gruelling flight and suffering from the effects of Covid-19. She also pointed out that the analysis of cannabis found in Griner’s possession was flawed and violated legal procedures.
The lawyer asked the court to acquit Griner, noting that she has no past criminal record and hailing her role in “the development of Russian basketball”.
Another defence lawyer, Alexander Boykov, also emphasised Griner’s role in taking her Yekaterinburg team to win multiple championships, noting that she was loved and admired by her teammates.
He told the judge a conviction would undermine Russia’s efforts to develop national sports and make Moscow’s call to depoliticise sports sound shallow.
Mr Boykov added that even after her arrest, Griner won the sympathy of guards and fellow inmates, who shouted “Brittney, everything will be OK!” when she went on walks at the jail.
Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko insisted that Griner packed the cannabis oil deliberately, and asked the court to hand her a fine of a million roubles (£13,500) in addition to the prison sentence.
It is not clear when the verdict will be announced. If she does not go free, attention will turn to the high-stakes possibility of a prisoner swap.
Before her trial began in July, the US State Department designated her as “wrongfully detained”, moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.
Last week, in an extraordinary move, US secretary of state Antony Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction, would go free.
The Lavrov-Blinken call marked the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops into Ukraine more than five months ago. The direct outreach over Griner is at odds with US efforts to isolate the Kremlin.
People familiar with the proposal say it envisions trading Griner and Mr Whelan for notorious arms trader Viktor Bout, who is serving a prison sentence in the US.
It underlines the public pressure the White House has faced to get Griner released.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday that Russia has made a “bad faith” response to the US government’s offer – a counter offer that American officials do not regard as serious. She declined to elaborate.
Russian officials have scoffed at US statements about the case, saying they show a disrespect for Russian law. They urged Washington to discuss the issue through “quiet diplomacy without releases of speculative information”.