US basketball star Brittney Griner will take “full responsibility for her actions” to set an example to her fans, her Russian legal team said after she pleaded guilty to a drug charge in a Moscow court on Thursday.
The Olympic gold medallist’s lawyers hope that the plea will help her avoid a severe sentence and enable her to return home sooner.
“Today BG [Ms Griner] pleaded guilty,” her legal team said. “It was her decision, informed by discussion with her legal defence team in Russia.
“Brittney sets an example of being brave. She decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people.
“Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance and [Ms Griner’s] personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defence hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence.”
The 31-year-old basketball star was detained in February at an airport near Moscow after authorities allegedly found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Cannabis oil is illegal in Russia and she faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted.
On Thursday, she told the court: “I’d like to plead guilty, your honour. But there was no intent. I didn’t want to break the law.
“I was in a rush packing and the cartridges accidentally ended up in my bag,” Ms Griner said calmly in English, which was then translated into Russian for the court.
Ms Griner’s arrest came before Russia launched its war on Ukraine on 24 February. Soon after, the historically-sour relations between the US and Russia deteriorated further as Washington imposed sweeping economic and trade sanctions on Moscow.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist is one of the most successful players in the women’s professional league in the US. She plays in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) for the team Phoenix Mercury.
After winning the WNBA and Euroleague titles, she travelled to Russia in February this year to play for UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Premier League in a bid to increase her income during the WNBA’s off-season, much like other US players have done.
Following her court hearing, Ms Griner received an outpouring of support from her supporters and colleagues in the league.
Her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, hailed Ms Giner for being a role model and said she deserved compassion, understanding, love and support.
The Women's National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) said it stands with Ms Griner.
“The WNBPA stands with Brittney Griner. With a 99% conviction rate, Russia’s process is its own. You can’t navigate it or even understand it like our own legal system,” WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson said.
“What we do know is that the US State Department determined that Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained for a reason, and we’ll leave it at that.”
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said: “Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained in Russia and nothing that happened today changes that 140 days later. The WNBA continues to work diligently with the US State Department, the White House, and other allies in and outside government to get Brittney home safely and as soon as possible.”
“She has the wholehearted and unconditional support of the entire WNBA and NBA family, who eagerly await her safe return, and the league will recognize BG as an honorary starter at this weekend’s WNBA All-Star Game.”
After her arrest, Ms Griner had requested US president Joe Biden to secure her release in a handwritten note.
“I realise you are dealing with so much, but please don’t forget about me and the other American detainees...” Ms Griner wrote. “Please do all you can to bring us home.”
The White House said that Mr Biden spoke to Ms Griner’s wife on Wednesday and told her they were working to have her released “as soon as possible”.
Additional reporting by agencies
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