WNBA star Brittney Griner’s Russian attorney said that her client was “devastated” with the nine year prison sentence handed to her by a Russian judge.
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She was sentenced on Thursday to the harsh punishment on charges of drug possession and smuggling, for less than a gram of cannabis oil, on Thursday.
She pleaded guilty to bringing vape cartridges that contained cannabis oil into Russia, which is a crime.
“She’s devastated. She is very upset and she’s honestly quite shocked, so she needs to digest what happened today,” her attorney Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners, said to People.
Her attorney said that the punishment for this crime is usually not as severe as Griner’s sentence.
“So nine years, it’s pretty unusual and it contradicts the existing court practice in Russia,” she said. “That’s why we are really disappointed and very much surprised by this decision of the court.”
Her attorney said that they intend to appeal and that “as a legal team, we need to do [the] maximum to get a shorter term. We need to use every legal opportunity that we have, and [an] appeal is one of those opportunities.”
The likely scenario is that Griner, and Paul Whelan, will be part of a prisoner exchange between Russia and the United States.
She appeared in court on Thursday, prior to the verdict and sentencing, apologized for the shame she had brought to her family, and insisted that she made an honest mistake.
“Russian court has found Brittney Griner guilty on drug smuggling and possession charges. The widely expected verdict comes after a monthlong trial and nearly six months after the basketball star was arrested at a Russian airport with cannabis in her luggage,” NPR reported.
Some reports suggest it’s likely that Griner, and possibly Paul Whelan, will be traded for one or more Russians currently in United States custody.
The prosecutor in the case asked the judge to impose a nine-and-a-half-year sentence for the basketball star who pleaded guilty to carrying cannabis oil in Russia, Reuters reported.
Her attorney argued that there are other big-name athletes who use cannabis as a defense for her client.
“In sprinting there is Usain Bolt, in Formula 1 – Michael Schumacher, and in women’s basketball there is Brittney Griner,” her attorney Maria Blagovolina said.
Griner pleaded guilty to the charges, as recommended by her attorneys, they said to ABC News.
“Brittney sets an example of being brave. She decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people,” they said. “Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance, and BG’s personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence.”
Her attorney said that after the trial a trade of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death” for Griner was “legally possible.”
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was stunned by United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken talking about the possible trade to the media and warned that Russia would not be bullied.
“We still believe that any exchanges of information on this topic should be discreet,” he said. “Megaphone diplomacy and the public exchange of opinions will not lead to results.”
The attorney for convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout, Steve Zissou, said in an interview with CNN that he is “confident” that the trade is going to happen to judge by the information he has gotten from “the Russian side, as opposed to the American side.”
The Russians have proposed a counter offer but the attorney believes that Russia would be willing to do the deal for Bout.
“Look, it’s no secret they’ve been wanting him back for several years now. They’ve been trying to get him back for decades,” he said.
The US has offered Bout, who is serving a 25-year US prison sentence, as part of a potential deal to secure the release of Griner and Whelan. But Russian officials have requested that Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel from the country’s domestic spy agency, be included in the US’ proposed swap of Bout for Griner and Whelan, multiple sources familiar with the discussions have told CNN.
Krasikov was convicted in December of murdering a former Chechen fighter, Zelimkhan “Tornike” Khangoshvili, in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison.
The request was seen as problematic for several reasons, the sources told CNN, among them that Krasikov remains in German custody. As such, and because the request was not communicated formally but rather through a FSB backchannel, the US government did not view it as a legitimate counter to the US’ offer which was first revealed by CNN on Wednesday.
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“This so-called, you call it to counteroffer, we would call it a bad faith attempt to avoid what is a serious proposal already on the table. And oh, by the way, Brianna, has been on the table now for several weeks,” John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said to CNN anchor Brianna Keilar on Monday. “Holding two Americans who have been wrongfully detained hostage for a convicted murderer in a third country is just — we don’t consider that a serious counteroffer at all. It is nothing more than a bad faith attempt by the Russians publicly to avoid what is a serious proposal, one that we are not making detailed in public and has been on the books for several weeks and we urge the Russians to accept it.”
But even trading Bout for Griner and Whelan has been seen by many as too steep a price.
The former DEA agent who helped to capture Bout, Rob “Zach” Zachariasiewicz, penned an op-ed for USA Today in which he warned against making a trade of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, a dangerous man who he helped capture, for Griner and/or Paul Whelan, two non-dangerous, wrongfully detained people.
“Bout, who is known as the “Merchant of Death,” provided the fuel for conflicts across the globe. He was a critical player in the global illicit arms trade not because he could obtain weapons but because he could deliver his destructive cargo anywhere in the world through his control of a private fleet of military aircraft. And he did just that,” the former DEA agent said.