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A Russian court on Thursday sentenced U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner to nine years in a penal colony after she was convicted on drug charges, a harsh sentence that linked her fate to Ukraine’s The war’s geopolitical showdown is entangled and has added to the already enormous pressure on President Biden to win her release.

The U.S. government argues that she is one of several Americans “wrongly detained” by Russia and used as a bargaining chip in the increasingly hostile relationship between Moscow and Washington. The Biden administration has proposed a prisoner swap involving Ms. Greener, but Russian officials said it was premature to discuss a deal while her case was ongoing.

Now that the trial is over, Mr. Biden faces a tough choice, either stick to his offer to trade with Ms. Greener and another American, Paul N. Whelan, or raise the offer in some way, both of which Both positions are likely to attract domestic criticism.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin could use them as leverage, with no incentive to resolve cases quickly. Her supporters, who have expressed fear over the verdict and the verdict, are demanding something from the president, while the administration is wary of succumbing to Russia’s tactics, which have all but been branded extortionate.

“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every means possible to get Britney and Paul Whelan home as quickly and safely as possible,” Biden said in a statement after the sentencing.

Ms. Greener, 31, one of her sport’s biggest global stars, sat almost expressionless, her eyes lowered, her long body leaning against the back of the defendant’s box in a cramped courtroom outside Moscow. On the railing, listen to Judge Anna S. Sotnikova, who was quietly translated for her. She has pleaded guilty and is almost certain to be convicted in a Russian court, so the verdict is a foregone conclusion; the real question is about sentencing.

The answer is devastating. According to Ms. Greener, when she arrived in Russia in February, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin sent his troops across the border into Ukraine.

She and her legal team had hoped for a lighter sentence based on her guilty plea, her statement that she did not intend to bring the cartridge to Russia and her testimony that she used the substance legally in the United States to manage pain.

“I made an honest mistake and I hope your ruling doesn’t end my life,” she said before sentencing.

She told the court that while she was responsible for her actions, “I have no intention of breaking Russian law.” After recovering from a Covid-19 pandemic, she said, she hastily packed up to rejoin her WNBA offseason The Russian team accidentally left the cartridge in the luggage.

“I know everyone is talking about political pawns and politics,” she added, “but I want that to stay away from that courtroom.”

Ms Greener’s defence team called the ruling “absolutely unreasonable”, saying the court had “completely disregarded all the defence’s evidence and most importantly the guilty plea” and vowed to appeal. Elizabeth Rood, deputy head of the U.S. embassy in Moscow, who attended the court session, called the result a “misjudgment.”

Russian officials insist that Ms. Greener’s case is simply the operation of the judicial system and has no political overtones – an assertion that their American counterparts and many Western analysts consider absurd.

William Pomeranz, a Russia expert and acting director of the Kenan Institute, a Washington-based research group, noted that Ms Griner was sentenced not to prison but to exile, which often meant more remote places — many in Siberia — and worse conditions.

“She might go to a penal colony in central Russia, where she won’t know anyone,” he added. “They won’t be able to come and visit. The penal colony can be very serious at times. If she ends up in the penal colony, it will be a huge test of her mental state.”

The U.S. has few options, he said. “It will depend on the Russians and how fast they want to get a deal.”

Basketball players, men and women, and basketball executives took to social media to express their support for Ms Greener and their grief over the verdict. Ms Greener’s team, Phoenix Mercury, said in a statement: “Our hearts are still broken for her, as we have been every day for nearly six months. We remain grateful and trust the public servants who work every day to send her back to her family and around us.”

With Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the indiscriminate destruction it caused, relations between Washington and Moscow are more confrontational and bitter than they have been in decades. The United States, along with the West, has provided arms and other aid to Ukraine and punished Moscow with economic sanctions, seeking opportunities to increase pressure.

The two sides have conducted prisoner swaps before, most recently in April when Russia released an American, Trevor R. Reed, on a charge. But few proposed exchanges have come in such tense situations, or involve someone as prominent as Ms Griner.

On Friday, Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov discussed Ms. Greener’s fate in their first direct talks before the invasion, a sign of how much risk Washington faces. .

The Biden administration has offered to trade Ms Greener and Mr Whelan for Victor Boot, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2011 on federal charges of conspiring to sell weapons to people posing as terrorists with the intent to kill Americans. Mr Whelan, detained in Russia since 2018, was convicted of espionage and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

The White House said on Monday that Russia had made an unspecified “malicious” offer, which U.S. officials said they did not consider serious.

“I don’t think it’s going to help Britney or Paul for us to be more open about where we’re going in the negotiations and what the president might or might do,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Thursday. . not willing to do it.”

“Conversations are taking place at every level,” he added.

If Biden sticks to his original proposal, he could face accusations of not doing enough.

Ms. Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, and other supporters launched an effective public campaign to pressure the president for her release. Supporters worry about her treatment in a country where anti-American and anti-gay vitriol is deeply rooted in popular opinion and official propaganda. In the U.S. and international media, images of the grim-faced Ms. Greener being carried, handcuffed, entering and exiting the courtroom, towering over her armed guards, have become commonplace.

The administration could make more attractive proposals, but U.S. officials already worry that the prisoner trade could encourage hostile foreign governments to detain Americans on fabricated charges in exchange for concessions, such as the release of their own outlaws. Some Republicans have complained that Mr Biden’s existing proposals would create such an incentive.

A 6-foot-9 center, Ms. Griner won the college national championship with Baylor in 2012, the WNBA title with Mercury in 2014, and the Team USA in 2016 and 2020. won an Olympic gold medal and won four Euroleague titles with Team USA. Russian team UMMC Yekaterinburg. Like many players in the WNBA, where wages are much lower than the NBA, Ms. Greener, who also played a season with a professional team in China, has played overseas to supplement her income.

reported by Michael Crowley, Jonathan Abrams and tania ganguly.

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