U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner stands in a cage prior to a court hearing near Moscow, Russia, Thursday. A Russian court on Thursday found her guilty of deliberately bringing cannabis-infused vape cartridges into Russia (Evgenia Novozhenina, Pool via AP)
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KHIMKI, Russia — A Russian court on Thursday found U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner to guilty of deliberately bringing cannabis-infused vape cartridges into Russia despite them being illegal, after the athlete said she had made an honest mistake by packing them.
Her sentencing, which is set to take place later on Thursday, could pave the way for an high-profile prisoner swap between Russia and the United States that would include the 31-year-old athlete and an imprisoned Russian who was once a prolific arms dealers.
Griner pleaded with a Russian judge earlier on Thursday not to “end her life” with a harsh prison sentence for bringing in vape cartridges containing hashish oil, before breaking down in tears in court.
The Russian prosecutor called for Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and a Women’s National Basketball Association star, to be sentenced to 9-1/2 years prison if she is found guilty of bringing illegal drugs to Russia.
Griner was detained at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on Feb. 17 with vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage. She pleaded guilty but said she had neither intended to bring a banned substance to Russia nor to hurt anybody.
In an teary statement before the verdict, Griner implored the judge to recognize her actions as a mistake.
“I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn’t end my life here,” Griner said in court before breaking down in tears.
The vape cartridges threw the 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.