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Brittney Griner’s nine-year prison sentence ‘complicates the injustice’ against her, says Secretary of State Antony Blinken

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the nine-year sentence imposed on WNBA star Brittney Griner “compounds the injustice” she has suffered in Russia since her arrest earlier this year.

“It highlights our very significant turnaround with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of unjust detentions to advance its own agenda by using individuals as political pawns,” Blinken said Friday at a meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Cambodia.

Griner was found guilty Thursday, sentenced to nine years in prison and fined 1 million rubles ($16,700). She had been arrested on February 17 at a Moscow airport after vape cartridges containing cannabis oil were found in her luggage.

The verdict and sentence were expected steps toward a trade to bring Griner back to the United States, as Russia was not going to move forward with a trade until his trial was complete.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to confirm that on Friday when he said Russia was ready to discuss a prisoner swap in private. Lavrov said that President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden previously agreed on a diplomatic channel that should be used to negotiate a possible exchange.

“We are ready to discuss this issue, but within the framework of the channel that Presidents Putin and Biden agreed to,” Lavrov said in Cambodia. “If the Americans decide to resort once again to public diplomacy … that is their business and I would even say that it is their problem.”

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Blinken has raised the possibility of a prisoner swap for Griner and another American imprisoned in Russia, Paul Whelan. Sources have told ESPN’s TJ Quinn that a deal would also involve convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States.

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The American basketball player spoke before hearing her sentence and after asking for forgiveness, she remarked that “I made an honest mistake. And I hope that the ruling does not end my life here.”

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Thursday after Griner’s sentencing that the United States had made a serious proposal to Russia without elaborating.

“We urge you to accept it,” Kirby said. “They should have accepted it weeks ago when we first did it.”

Russia and the United States arranged a prisoner swap in April, exchanging former Marine Trevor Reed for Russian pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year sentence in the United States. US officials had sought such an exchange after Reed was reported to be in poor health, and Griner’s supporters saw it as a sign of an open diplomatic channel between the two countries.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the court ruling on Griner. When asked if she could be pardoned, he said the clemency procedure was codified in Russian law.

Peskov also made the same comment as Lavrov about public diplomacy more harshly, saying that “The United States has already made mistakes, trying to solve those problems through ‘microphone diplomacy’. They are not solved that way.”

Griner’s defense attorneys have said they would appeal. The defense team said that in sentencing, the court had ignored all the evidence it had presented and Griner’s guilty plea.

Biden called Griner’s sentence “unacceptable” on Thursday and called on Russia “to immediately release her so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates.”

Asked Friday at the White House about the prospects of securing Griner’s release, Biden said, “I’m hopeful. … We’re working hard.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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