U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner was sentenced by a Russian court to nine years in prison on drug charges.
Griner, 31, was heard saying “I love my family” as she was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs.
The harsh sentence is seen as a gambit by Russia to demand a prisoner in exchange for high-profile Russians in the U.S.
The double Olympic winner admitted in the courtroom to possessing cannabis oil, saying it was completely an accident that it was in the suitcase when she landed in Russia, and was an “honest mistake.”
The court convicted her of smuggling and possessing narcotics. The prosecution had sought a nine-and-a-half-year jail term, making the sentencing almost completely the full sentence.
Reading the verdict on Thursday, the presiding judge said she had taken into account the fact that the American had already spent a considerable time in detention, and did not add the final six months to the sentence.
Russia said it is ready to discuss a prisoner swap for the imprisoned basketball player as well as another imprisoned American. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said while Russia is open to a swap, the Kremlin would resist public pressure to free Brittney Griner and others being held in Russian prisons.
This legal gambit is seen as a ploy for Russia to exchange prisoners, including the Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout.
Brittney Griner and her legal team tried to steer clear of politics during her trial. “I know everybody keeps talking about ‘political pawn’ and ‘politics’, but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” Griner said in a closing statement on Thursday.
Griner had come to Russia to play club basketball during the U.S. off-season, which is common for top players. Soon after, Russia invaded Ukraine and her case has become subject to high-profile diplomacy between the US and Russia.
US President Joe Biden called the sentencing “unacceptable”.