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Brittney Griner: US urges Russia to release jailed basketball star

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The US has urged Russia to free Brittney Griner, after the basketball star was handed a nine-year prison sentence in a politically-charged case.

A judge in Russia convicted 31-year-old Griner -- a two-time Olympic champion -- of drug possession and smuggling Thursday and sentenced her to nine years in prison.

US President Joe Biden denounced the verdict and sentence as “unacceptable” and renewed calls for a prisoner exchange between Washington and Moscow.

“I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates,” Biden said, adding that he would carry on efforts to bring Griner and another imprisoned American in Russia back to the US.

Russia's top diplomat said on Friday that Moscow was ready to discuss the prisoner swap through "presidential level communication" between Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

"We are ready to discuss this subject," said foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, adding that the US's decision to engage in public diplomacy and make resounding declarations [was] ... their problem."

Washington "does not arrive to work ... calmly and professionally" on many subjects, he added.

Griner, described as one of the greatest players in WNBA history, was detained in February after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage upon landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

In court on Thursday, Griner reacted to the sentence with little emotion. She listened to the verdict from the defendant's cage, with a blank stare on her face, but her lawyers said later she was “very upset.”

As she was led out of court, Griner said: “I love my family.”

Griner also was fined 1 million rubles (about $16,700).

The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years that Griner could receive under the charges. Most Russians possessing small quantities of drugs get at most five years in prison, lawyers said.

Outside court, the US Embassy's charge d’affaires Elizabeth Rood called the outcome “a miscarriage of justice.”

Attention now turns to the possibility of a high-stakes prisoner swap that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken proposed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Under the proposed deal, Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction, would go free.

Russian officials have remained poker-faced about a possible deal and chafed at US statements about the case, saying a possible deal should be discussed through “quiet diplomacy without releases of speculative information.”

Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas said the sentence “was severe by Russian legal standards and goes to prove what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn."

She added that she supported Biden's efforts “to get a deal done.”

There has been growing pressure on the Biden administration to bring Griner home during the six months she has spent behind bars. Her wife, Cherelle, has accused Biden of not doing enough to secure her freedom.

Russian media have suggested that Griner could be swapped for Viktor Bout.

Nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” Bout is currently serving a 25-year sentence in the US, having been convicted of conspiracy to kill US citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

Russia has tried to secure Bout’s release for years.

In April, Washington and Moscow swapped Trevor Reed, a former US Marine detained in Russia, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot and convicted drug trafficker, despite tensions over Ukraine.

Griner has 10 days to appeal.

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