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A Russian court has sentenced Brittney Griner to 9 years in prison on drug charges


Guilty was the verdict in Moscow today, and the sentence was severe. A Russian court gave American basketball star Brittney Griner nine years in prison. This was right after the judge convicted her of drug smuggling and possession over the small amount of hash oil she says she accidentally brought into the country. The sentence was just shy of the 9 1/2 years that the prosecution requested. All of this plays out against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and negotiations between the U.S. and Russia for a possible prisoner swap. NPR's Charles Maynes was at the courthouse and has our story.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: It's been six full months since Brittney Griner was first detained while rushing to catch a flight at a Moscow airport as she arrived for Russian League play. Yet it took just one afternoon at a Moscow courthouse for the judge to rush through closing arguments and issue her verdict.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: As Griner sat in the cage listening through an interpreter, the judge said the basketball star had knowingly possessed and transported cannabis oil into Russia and should face nine years in prison as a result.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: "Do you understand the ruling," said the judge to a stone-faced Griner, who responded...


BRITTNEY GRINER: Yes, I understand, Your Honor.

MAYNES: With the ruling, the judge rejected Griner's explanation that the substance, less than a gram of hash oil, was legally obtained in the U.S. through a doctor to treat chronic pain or that she had never intentionally violated Russian law, a point Griner emphasized in a final plea ahead of the ruling.


GRINER: I made an honest mistake. And I hope that, in your ruling, that it doesn't end my life here.

MAYNES: She also expressed remorse that her actions had embarrassed her fans and teammates at her Russian club, UMMC of Yekaterinburg, where she's played for years.


GRINER: Again, I want to apologize to my teammates and the organization, UMMC, for any damage that I may have done to them. I never intended on hurting them. This is my second home, and all I wanted to do is just win championships and make them proud.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Following the ruling, Griner's lawyers said they would appeal a decision that defied sentencing norms even for Russians, who would themselves receive lighter sentences or possibly even probation. The defense team also expressed frustration that the court completely ignored their arguments for leniency based on Griner's contribution to Russian women's basketball, as well as procedural violation of Griner's rights during her arrest. After the hearing, Griner's lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, acknowledged that while her client did not expected miracles, the shock of a nine-year sentence still lingered with all of them.

MARIA BLAGOVOLINA: We feel disappointment. You know, when we saw Brittney, I think it was Tuesday. And we told her, see you on Thursday. And she said, see you on doomsday. So looks like she was right.

MAYNES: It appears a legal case that has unfolded against the backdrop of plummeting U.S.-Russian relations over the conflict in Ukraine now moves entirely into the political arena. President Biden immediately issued a statement condemning the ruling. And outside the courthouse, the U.S. Embassy's deputy chief of mission, Elizabeth Rood, said the U.S. government would keep fighting to free Griner and other detained Americans in Russia.


ELIZABETH ROOD: This is a miscarriage of justice. The U.S. Department of State has determined that Ms. Griner was wrongfully detained. Nothing in today's decision changes that determination.

MAYNES: The White House has already acknowledged it made a substantial proposal to Russia to free Griner and another American, former Marine Paul Whelan. It's reported that the U.S. would be willing to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, currently in a prison in Illinois. The Kremlin has suggested closed-door negotiations might yield results once Griner's trial was over but said the talks shouldn't be public. But now that that's the case, and Grinder's nine-year sentence a reality, the price of what Moscow seeks in these negotiations may very well have gone up. Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.