Brittney Griner: Russian prosecutors call for nine year jail sentence for US basketball star

Russian prosecutors have demanded that American basketball star Brittney Griner be sentenced to nine-and-a-half years in prison on cannabis possession charges.

Closing arguments in Griner’s trial were taking place on Thursday, nearly six months after her arrest at a Moscow airport and subsequent detention in a case that has reached the highest levels of US-Russia diplomacy because of the Ukraine war.

Although a conviction appears almost certain, judges have considerable latitude on sentencing.

Lawyers for the Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist have called for her to be acquitted.

A lawyer on Griner’s defence team, Maria Blagovolina, argued that Griner brought cannabis cartridges with her to Russia inadvertently and only used them in Arizona, where medical marijuana is legal. Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko argued that Griner packed the cannabis oil deliberately.

It is unclear when a verdict will be announced.

Griner’s case has become high-profile due to the war in Ukraine.

Critics in the US claim she is being used as a political pawn by Moscow and before her trial began in July, the State Department designated her as being “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.

People familiar with the potential prisoner swap, say it could lead to Griner and Whelan being traded for notorious arms trader Viktor Bout.

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