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Why Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to Russian drug charges

U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug charges in a suburban Moscow courtroom on Thursday, admitting to charges that could land her in a Russian prison for 10 years. Griner was arrested in February with vape cartridges containing a total of 0.702 grams of hashish oil, Russian prosecutors said last week at her first court hearing. She is being charged with large-scale transportation of drugs.

"I had no intention on breaking any Russian law," Griner told the court Thursday. "I was in a rush packing and the cartridges accidentally ended up in my bags."

"The quantity of hashish oil that Griner has been accused of carrying could have been legally possessed in Arizona, where she lives, and 18 other U.S. states," The Wall Street Journal reports, and it should also reportedly be legal for personal use in Russia. Prosecutors acknowledged "the cartridges were for her personal use," the Journal adds, but said "it was a crime to bring them into Russia." The U.S. declared her "wrongfully detained" in May.

So why did Griner plead guilty?

"She decided to take full responsibility for her actions as she knows that she is a role model for many people," her lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, said after Thursday's hearing. "Considering the nature of her case, the insignificant amount of the substance, and BG's personality and history of positive contributions to global and Russian sport, the defense hopes that the plea will be considered by the court as a mitigating factor and there will be no severe sentence." 

"We hope that the confession of guilt will influence the court to hand down a more lenient sentence, and we will ask for that," Blagovolina told The Washington Post.

Experts on Russian law said that Griner faced virtually no chance of acquittal, and Russian officials made clear there would be no negotiations for Griner's release until her trial was concluded.

Russian media organizations have speculated that Griner could be traded for Russian arms trader Viktor Bout, nicknamed "the Merchant of Death," currently serving a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens. But U.S. officials are unlikely to agree to such an uneven swap and Russian officials, publicly, are bristling at the U.S. treating Griner as a political hostage. 

"This is a serious offense, confirmed by indisputable evidence," Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexei Zaitsev said Wednesday. "And arguments about the innocent nature of Griner's addiction, which, by the way, is punishable in some U.S. states, are inappropriate in this case."