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Russian prosecutors demand 9.5 years in jail for Brittney Griner

Russian prosecutors have asked for the US basketball player Brittney Griner to be sentenced to nine and a half years in prison, as the Kremlin wraps up her politically charged trial before a potential prisoner exchange.

Prosecutors in the Russian court said Griner’s arrest on drug charges was “fully proven” and demanded she serve nearly a decade in a high-security prison and pay a large fine.

A verdict in the WNBA star’s case was expected on Thursday evening, her lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, said.

A guilty verdict appears to be a foregone conclusion as Griner’s conviction would be a necessary step towards a prisoner exchange with the US. US officials say Russia is seeking to exchange Griner and Paul Whelan, a former US marine arrested on spying charges in 2020, for the convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.

A lawyer for Whelan told the Guardian, however, that a final agreement did not seem to have been reached.

Russia has already exchanged Trevor Reed, a former marine arrested in Moscow, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot who was held for nearly a decade in the US on a drug smuggling conviction. The exchange at an airfield in Turkey recalled a cold war thriller, as the two men walked past each other to board planes back to their respective countries.

The US has declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained”, arguing that the charges against her, after a vape pen with marijuana oils was allegedly found in her luggage, were meant to put political pressure on the US.

In closing arguments on Thursday at the city court in Khimki, near Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, Griner’s lawyer said the Phoenix Mercury basketball player only used marijuana for medical purposes, and described the pressures on the basketball star, who she compared to the sprinter Usain Bolt. She requested an acquittal in the case.

There were early signs at the courtroom that the verdict might be imminent. Police special forces with bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the small building and court officials said they would allow more cameras into the room if a verdict was delivered.

Griner did not respond to questions as she was led into the courtroom earlier in the day.

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