A Russian prosecutor on Thursday demanded U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner be sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison on drugs charges but her lawyers invoked sporting legends Usain Bolt and Michael Schumacher to plead that she be acquitted.
A verdict is expected later on Thursday, a step that could bring an extraordinary U.S.-Russia swap including Griner and an imprisoned Russian who was once a prolific arms dealers.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage.
Cannabis is illegal in Russia for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
“In sprinting there is Usain Bolt, in Formula 1 Michael Schumacher, and in women’s basketball there is Brittney Griner,” her lawyer Maria Blagovolina said of her global fame during closing arguments.
Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin Gortsunyan Dyakin and Partners law firm, said that should the court deems it necessary to punish her, Griner should be be treated leniently.
Alexander Boikov, her other lawyer, said some of the case files were drawn up in violation of the law.
Griner, who pleaded guilty, did not intend to bring cannabis into Russia, her defence team said.
The cartridges threw the 31-year-old Texan athlete into the geopolitical maelstrom triggered when President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
During the most strained U.S.-Russian relations since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, U.S. President Joe Biden is under pressure to intervene on behalf of Americans held in Russia.
The United States has said Griner was wrongfully detained and offered to exchange Russian prisoners for American citizens including Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan.
One source familiar with the situation said that Washington was willing to exchange convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, whose life helped inspire the 2005 Hollywood film “Lord of War” starring Nicholas Cage.
Russian officials have said a deal has not been reached. They argue that Griner – known as “BG” to basketball fans – violated laws and should be judged accordingly.
Griner, whom her lawyers said was both focused and nervous as the trial neared its end, appeared at the hearing in a grey T-shirt and round-rimmed glasses. She bent down to avoid banging her head against the doorframe of the courtroom at Khimki District Court outside Moscow.
Before taking a seat in the defendant’s cage, Griner held up a team picture of UMMC Ekaterinburg, the team she played for in Russia during the WNBA offseason.
In testimony last week, Griner expressed puzzlement as to how the vape cartridges ended up in her luggage as she was flying back to Russia to join UMMC Ekaterinburg for the playoffs.
“I still don’t understand to this day how they ended up in my bag,” said Griner, the first pick overall in the 2013 WNBA draft. “If I had to guess on how they ended up in my bags, I was in a rush packing.”
Griner had been prescribed medical marijuana in the United States to relieve pain from chronic injuries, a treatment method that is common among elite athletes because it has fewer side effects than some painkillers.