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Russia is 'ready' to discuss US prisoner exchange - a day after basketball star sentencing

Brittney Griner was detained at a Moscow airport in February after she was found carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage.

WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner in Russia yesterday.
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner in Russia yesterday.
Image: EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA

RUSSIA’S FOREIGN MINISTER has said the country is “ready” to discuss a prisoner swap with the US at the presidential level, a day after the drug conviction of US basketball star Brittney Griner.

“We are ready to discuss this subject, but only within the framework of the [communication] channel established by presidents Putin and Biden,” Sergei Lavrov told a press conference on a visit to Cambodia.

“There is a special channel established by the presidents and despite certain public declarations, it is still functional,” he said.

“If the Americans again decide to engage in public diplomacy and make thundering declarations… that’s their business and their problem,” he said, adding that Washington “can’t” work “in a professional and calm manner.”

Griner was convicted and sentenced in a Russian court yesterday on charges of smuggling cannabis vape cartridges into the country. She has been sentenced to nine years in prison and told to pay a fine of one million rubles (€16,036).

The United States government has declared that Griner was wrongfully detained in Russia.

The six-foot-nine star was detained at a Moscow airport in February after she was found carrying vape cartridges with cannabis oil in her luggage. The arrest came just days before Moscow launched its military intervention in Ukraine.

The verdict and sentence was widely condemned in the US as “unjustified” and sparked urgent calls for the government to bring Griner home.

“Today’s verdict and sentencing is unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained,” said Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA commissioner Adam Silver in a joint statement.

“The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”

‘Every possible avenue’

Griner stars for the Phoenix Mercury basketball team But like many WNBA players, she competes in an overseas league as well.

She was returning to her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, from the United States when she was detained in February.

The Mercury team said they were “heartbroken” for her, but had faith the administration of US President Joe Biden “will do what it takes to end her wrongful detention.”

In the wake of the verdict, Biden vowed to “pursue every possible avenue” to repatriate her.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Washington had made a “substantial proposal” to Moscow to free Griner and former US Marine Paul Whelan, who was imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges.

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said after the verdict the adminstration had again urged Russia to accept the offer.

Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, said on Twitter that the sentence “goes to prove what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn.”

She praised the efforts of Biden and Blinken “to get a deal done swiftly to bring Brittney, Paul and all Americans home.”

Nygaard also praised the “tremendous” efforts of Biden and his administration in seeking the release of Griner and other Americans deemed wrongfully detained in Russia.

“What I do know is our government has really put itself behind BG and all other Americans – we’re learning a lot more about international wrongly detained Americans than we ever have,” she said.

“I know there are so many other families experiencing this feeling, too.”

© AFP 2022

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