Russian prosecutors have asked a court outside Moscow to sentence Britney Greener to 9.5 years in prison as the American basketball star neared the conclusion of her trial on drug charges on Thursday.
The court is hearing closing arguments in a bid to pave the way for a high-stakes prisoner swap between the U.S. and Russia.
Greener faces up to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty in a lengthy trial last month, underscoring tensions between the two countries since the invasion of Ukraine.
Griner, 31, was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February; Russian authorities said they found vaping cans containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner, the centerpiece of Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, admitted the jars were hers. She said she unintentionally brought them to Russia.
One of her lawyers, Alexander Boikov, told reporters during the trial that Greener was in a hurry to pack when the pods accidentally fell into her suitcase.
Greener was taken to a cage inside the courtroom in handcuffs on Thursday, wearing an olive shirt. Before the proceedings, she showed pictures of her teammates at the Russian club she played for the WNBA offseason.
Prosecutors sought 9.5 years in prison and a fine of 1 million rubles ($16,590) for Griner, which her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, called “nonsense,” considering her guilt was well documented.
Her defense team has challenged some of the expert analysis used in the case and said Greener did not have proper interpreting services during her arrest. They also pointed to Griner’s many athletic achievements, including in Russia. Her attorney reiterated that Griner had only used marijuana medically and never in Russia. They demanded that Griner be acquitted or given a minimum sentence.
At previous hearings, Her defense team argues that Griner, a Houston native like many other international athletes, who is 6-foot-9 and played in the offseason for Russia’s Ural mining and metallurgical company Yekaterinburg, used medicinal marijuana to soothe his injuries.
Griner’s legal team also tried to defend her with her image as a role model and actively contribute to global and Russian basketball.
The Kremlin has been accused of using Greener as a political pawn, and the Biden administration has been facing mounting pressure from her family and teammates for her release.
The U.S. government has offered Moscow to release Greener and another American, Paul Whelan, who served 16 years for espionage, in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, according to two people familiar with the matter.
White House Press Secretary Karin Jean-Pierre tell reporters On Monday, Russia responded with a “malicious” response to the U.S. government’s proposal and responded with its own. “We don’t think it’s a serious bargain,” she said.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and His Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov last week urged the Kremlin to accept the U.S. offer — the highest-level diplomatic engagement between Washington and Moscow since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Blinken called it a “frank and direct conversation” but declined to describe Lavrov’s response.
Russian respond U.S. is urged not to be opportunistic and pursue “quiet diplomacy” instead.
Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who was released from a Russian prison in April, had earlier said he believed the White House was not doing enough to help free Griner and Whelan.
In May, the State Department reclassified Greener as “wrongly detained” and handed oversight of her case to the State Department’s special envoy for hostage affairs. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that Greener was being held hostage.
Last month, President Joe Biden spoke with Greener’s wife, Cheryl Greener. He also wrote a letter directly to Greener after she sent him a handwritten note pleading for her release.