New York Daily News: By Jessica Schladebeck – A Russian court on Thursday ruled that WNBA star Brittney Griner is guilty of smuggling drugs into the country, a crime which is punishable with up to 10 years behind bars.
The two-time Olympic medalist, also a player for the Phoenix Mercury, has been behind bars overseas ever since her arrest more than five months ago at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, where customs officials said they discovered vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage. She was accused of intentionally smuggling drugs into the country, where marijuana use is illegal for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
Griner pleaded guilty in July to possessing the substance but has also maintained that she did not mean to break the law, telling authorities that she mistakenly put the cannisters in her suitcase as she rushed to pack for her return to Russia, where she plays for the UMMC Ekaterinburg basketball team during the WNBA’s offseason.
Griner’s lawyer, Maria Blagovolin, also noted that Griner was prescribed medical cannabis two years ago to treat severe chronic pain and presented a doctor’s note in court as proof. Blagovolin last month also provided a series of tests the American athlete received as part of an anti-doping check, none of which turned up any banned substances in her system.
“I want to apologize to my teammates, my club, my fans and the city of (Yekaterinburg) for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them,” Griner told the court while fighting back her emotion.
“I want to also apologize to my parents, my siblings, the Phoenix Mercury organization back at home, the amazing women of the WNBA, and my amazing spouse back at home.”
Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko has alternatively argued that Griner packed the cannabis oil deliberately, but the defense contended they have not been able to prove criminal intent.
The court has yet to reach a ruling as of Thursday morning though a conviction seems highly likely given Griner’s guilty plea along with the fact that Russian courts rarely acquit. If she is jailed, officials will have to consider a prisoner swap in order to secure her release.
Under Russian law, Griner faces up to 10 years in prison.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken late last week spoke to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about a possible exchange. He encouraged Lavrov to accept a deal involving Griner and former security consultant Paul Whelan, an American who is serving a 16-year prison term in Russia. He was convicted of spying in 2020 but has since said he was framed.
The potential trade in turn would likely see the U.S. release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was arrested in a US sting operation in Thailand in 2008.
With News Wire Services
Top Feature Photo: Women’s National Basketball Association (NBA) basketball player Brittney Griner, who was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and later charged with illegal possession of cannabis, stands inside a defendants’ cage before a court hearing in Khimki outside Moscow, on August 4, 2022 – EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images