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Russian court sentences Brittney Griner to 9 years in prison, Biden demands Moscow release WNBA player 'immediately'

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EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

On Thursday, a Russian court sentenced WNBA star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison for smuggling illegal drugs into the country.

On Feb. 17, Griner was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport after she was caught with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. Prosecutors argued that the 0.720 grams of cannabis found in Griner's luggage was a "significant amount."

Griner admitted that she brought the banned substances to Russia, but claimed that she accidentally packed the vape cartridges on the trip to Russia to play for the UMMC Ekaterinburg basketball team.

Griner pleaded guilty in court, but maintained that she had no criminal intent in bringing the illegal drugs into Russia. The basketball player said she made "an honest mistake."

Griner's lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, insisted Griner packed the cannabis oil in haste and emphasized that medical cannabis is legal in Arizona.

Prosecutor Nikolai Vlasenko asserted that Griner deliberately packed the cannabis oil in her luggage.

Before she was sentenced, Griner told the court, "I hope in your ruling it does not end my life."

Judge Anna Sotnikova sentenced Griner to nine years in a Russian penal colony. The Russian judge also fined the Women's National Basketball Association player 1 million rubles – which is about $16,700.

President Joe Biden issued a statement on Griner's prison sentence.

"Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney," Biden stated. "It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates."

"My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible," President Biden concluded.

Paul Whelan is an American and former Marine convicted of espionage in Russia.

Since the 31-year-old Phoenix Mercury center was detained in Russia, the Biden administration has been attempting to set her free. The Biden administration has even proposed a prisoner swap with Russia to free Griner.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed a potential prisoner swap with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Washington proposed a prisoner swap in which Russia would free Griner and Whelan in exchange for the release of convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, who is a former Soviet military officer and KGB agent. Bout was a notorious international arms trafficker known as the "Merchant of Death." Bout's story inspired the 2005 movie "Lord of War" starring Nicolas Cage.

On Monday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Moscow had made a "bad faith" response to Washington's offer. Jean-Pierre said the counteroffer was "not serious."

"Clearly, not going to negotiate from here," Jean-Pierre said. "I’m not going to get into any specific details."

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