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A court in Moscow sentences WNBA star Brittney Griner to 9 years on drug charges

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Grim news in a Russian courtroom for Brittney Griner - the WNBA star was sentenced to nine years in prison for bringing less than a gram of hash oil into the country in her luggage. She pleaded guilty but said she never intended to break Russian law. The judge gave her close to the maximum sentence. Now attention is focused on a possible prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Russia, which could include Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan. Joining us now from Moscow is NPR's Charles Maynes, who was in the courtroom yesterday.

Charles, how did Griner and her legal team take the news?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah. You know, to set the scene a bit, you know, Griner was sitting in a cage in the courtroom looking understandably grim as she listened through an interpreter to the judge, who really raced through the verdict. It seemed like the judge was in a rush to end a trial that had gone on for over a month now. The guilty verdict itself wasn't such a surprise. Ninety-nine percent of all criminal cases in Russia end in conviction.

And Griner, of course, admitted to unintentionally breaking Russian law. Now, in doing so, she told the court she made an honest mistake. She also apologized to everyone - you know, fans, her Russian teammates, her family - for getting into this mess, saying she never meant to hurt anyone. She just wanted to play basketball with her team here in Russia, which she called her second home. But, you know, all of this has unfolded against a real breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations over the conflict in Ukraine and accusations from the U.S. that Griner was essentially a hostage. And Griner even addressed the issue in her final statement to the court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRITTNEY GRINER: I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.

MAYNES: And even though her lawyers - you know, they mounted this vigorous and compelling defense, noting, for example, that most Russians would get a suspended or lesser sentence for such a small amount of hash, for which, by the way, she had a legal prescription in the U.S. to treat chronic pain. You know, despite all of this, the judge gave her a very-close-to-the-maximum sentence, nine years.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have condemned the verdict, and they're vowing to bring Griner home. What have Russians been saying about this?

MAYNES: Well, first of all, Secretary of State Blinken was in Cambodia today for a regional ministerial meeting. And he repeated this idea that Griner was a political pawn.

Now, his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, was also there, and he had this take on Griner's future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGEY LAVROV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: So here Lavrov is saying that President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin already have long had a channel for discussions about prisoner exchanges and that Moscow is still open to those conversations, provided they happen behind closed doors, not in public.

MARTINEZ: I know they've got 10 days to appeal. Is Griner's legal team likely to try this?

MAYNES: Well, you know, Griner's lawyers say they'll appeal, which is, of course, what you normally do when you don't agree with the court's verdict. But remember, Russia has always said that any negotiations would only take place once the trial was complete. Now, Griner's defense was asked about this yesterday and said basically, look, we'll do whatever is the right move here to get Brittney Griner home as fast as possible. But, of course, it's not up to them.

You know, meanwhile, we have multiple media reports that the Kremlin is looking to include a second Russian national in any deal for Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan. The offer is already said to include a convicted arms dealer, Viktor Bout, who's now in a prison in Illinois. Certainly, there's intense speculation and public pressure on President Biden to get Griner and Whelan home. And the Kremlin is aware of all this. And that may incentivize Moscow to just sit back and see what more they can get.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Charles Maynes.

Charles, thanks.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.