Biden issues statement on Griner sentence, calling it "unacceptable"
From CNN's Betsy Klein
US President Joe Biden reacted Thursday to a Russian court finding WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty of drug smuggling, calling her sentence of nine years in prison “unacceptable.”
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden said in a statement.
He continued: “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
The Russian court said that Griner committed the crime deliberately and sentenced her to nine years of jail time and a fine of 1 million rubles (roughly $16,400). Griner was arrested with less than one gram of cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on Feb. 17, shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine.
The sentencing came as CNN has reported that the US has made a “substantial offer” with Russia of a proposed prisoner swap for Griner and Paul Whelan with convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout.
11:34 a.m. ET, August 4, 2022
"Ball is in Russia's court" still on Griner negotiations, US official says
From CNN's MJ Lee
After a Russian court found Brittney Griner guilty of drug smuggling and sentenced her to 9 years of jail time, US officials say that they believe the state of play on trying to get Griner out of Russia remains the same for now.
The US made what the administration has described as a “substantial offer” to Russia to exchange both Griner and Paul Whelan for convicted Russian arms trafficker Victor Bout. The administration will continue to try to move forward on those negotiations and press Russia to accept that offer, officials said Thursday.
But, as one official pointed out, this process expected to continue to take some time — and it is ultimately up to Russia how quickly it wants to move.
“The ball is in Russia’s court” right now, one official said.
11:31 a.m. ET, August 4, 2022
Brittney Griner sentenced to 9 years of jail time
From CNN's Chris Liakos
WNBA star Brittney Griner has been sentenced by a Russian court to 9 years of jail time with a fine of 1 million rubles (roughly $16,400), Judge Anna Sotnikova of the Khimki city court said Thursday.
The court said it took into account her partial admission of guilt, remorse for the deed, state of health and charitable activities.
Griner was found guilty of drug smuggling, a crime the judge said she committed deliberately. Griner was arrested with less than one gram of cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on Feb. 17.
She said it was “an honest mistake” due to packing in a hurry.
Her lawyers argued that if Griner ever used medical marijuana, it was only at home back in Arizona, where it is legal, very rarely, in the short periods between competitions and on vacation, only on the prescription of a doctor for her severe pain from sports injuries.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist apologized in her final statement in court Thursday and asked for the court’s leniency, explaining that she had no intent to break any Russian laws.
11:07 a.m. ET, August 4, 2022
Russian court finds WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty of drug smuggling with criminal intent
A Russian court has found Brittney Griner guilty of drug smuggling with criminal intent.
The judge at Khimki court in the Moscow region is still reading out the verdict. The judge is now going through the facts of the case, the witnesses called and their testimonies.
Some background: The 31-year-old Olympic gold medalist was arrested at a Moscow airport and accused by Russian prosecutors of trying to smuggle less than one gram of cannabis oil in her luggage.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” Griner said in the Khimki city courthouse on Thursday. “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn’t end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom."
"I had no intent on breaking any Russian laws," she said.
She pleaded guilty to drug charges last month in what her lawyers say was an attempt to take responsibility and receive leniency.
In closing arguments Thursday, a prosecutor asked for 9.5 years of jail time for Griner, according to defense lawyer Maria Blagovolina, a partner at Rybalkin, Gortsunyan, Dyakin and Partners law firm.
Blagovolina argued that Griner never used marijuana in Russia and that she never had the intention of doing so. She had no need to bring the vape cartridges to Russia, the lawyer added.
11:13 a.m. ET, August 4, 2022
Griner is back in the courtroom
WNBA star Brittney Griner is now back inside a Russian courtroom for her verdict announcement, which is expected to be delivered shortly.
9:30 a.m. ET, August 4, 2022
White House says Russia is planning to falsify evidence to frame Ukrainian forces for prison attack
From CNN's Kaitlan Collins
White House officials believe Russia is preparing to falsify evidence to blame Ukrainian forces for the deadly blast at the Olenivka prison ahead of visits to the site by outside parties.
An administration official told CNN they expect Russia will falsify evidence, blame Ukrainian forces and even have "reason to believe that Russia would go so far as to make it appear that Ukrainian HIMARS were to blame before journalists arrive.”
The US supplied Ukraine with the HIMARS multiple launch rocket system earlier this year.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said the attack on the prison, which is in separatist-held eastern Ukraine, was "a deliberate war crime by the Russians."
Russia has previously blamed Ukraine for the attack.
UN mission: United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in a Wednesday news conference that the UN is seeking to establish a fact-finding team to study the attack on the detention facility that resulted in at least 50 deaths and dozens of injuries of Ukrainian prisoners of war.
Russia and Ukraine both requested an investigation into the attack, Guterres told reporters in New York. He added that the terms of reference for the panel would need to be accepted by Russia and Ukraine before the fact-finding mission would begin.
Ukraine blames mercenary group: The Ukrainian Defense Ministry's Intelligence department claimed Wednesday that the detonation of the building where Ukrainian soldiers were held "was carried out by the fighters of the 'Wagner' military command center using a highly flammable substance, which led to the rapid spread of the fire in the premises."
Wagner is a private military contractor whose fighters have been involved in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as other conflicts in Africa and the Middle East.
CNN is unable to verify the claim by the Ukrainian Defense Intelligence department, which provided no evidence to support its allegation.
What Russia is saying: The Russian government has rejected accusations from the White House that it is falsifying evidence.
“One thing can be said here, which is absolutely obvious and absolutely proven about what happened in Olenivka. People, namely the Ukrainian prisoners of war, who were kept there, they died at the hands of the Ukrainian military,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists in a call on Thursday.
“Ukraine killed its soldiers who were in captivity. Many wounded. Therefore, there is hard evidence here and there is nothing to hide,” Peskov said.
In Thursday’s call, Peskov said Russia had invited the UN and the ICRC to visit the site. However, in a statement issued on Wednesday, the ICRC said it still had not been given access to the site.
CNN's Uliana Pavlova contributed reporting to this post.
9:31 a.m. ET, August 4, 2022
Unexploded shells and abandoned pets: Inside a village recaptured from Russians
The village of Ivanivka in southern Ukraine has been recaptured from Russian forces following a two-week artillery battle.
It remains deserted. A commander of Ukraine's Air Force reconnaissance unit joins CNN on the ground to show what's left behind.
9:26 a.m. ET, August 4, 2022
8 civilians killed in Russian shelling of Donetsk town, according to Ukrainian authorities
From CNN's Olga Voitovych
Ukrainian authorities said eight people were killed Thursday by Russian shelling in the town of Toretsk in the Donetsk region.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of Donetsk regional military administration, said four others had been injured, three of them children. He said a shell had hit a transportation stop.
Toretsk is south of the town of Bakhmut and is frequently hit by shelling.
Repeating the government's appeal for people to evacuate the region, Kyrylenko said: "All those who still remain in Donetsk region are putting themselves in mortal danger. ... Do not turn yourself into a Russian target!"
9:19 a.m. ET, August 4, 2022
Griner tells Russian court she made an "honest mistake"
From CNN's Masha Angelova
A visibly emotional Brittney Griner told the Khimki court near Moscow that she wanted to apologize to her Russian team, to her fans and to her family, for the “embarrassment she caused them."
Griner said that had no intention to break the Russian law and that she made a mistake.
"That’s why I pled guilty to my charges. I understand everything that’s been said against me, the charges that are against me and that is why I pled guilty, but I had no intent to break any Russian laws," she said.
The two-time US Olympic basketball gold medalist pleaded guilty to drug charges last month in what her lawyers say was an attempt to take responsibility and receive leniency if she is ultimately convicted and sentenced.
"I made an honest mistake, and I hope that in your ruling, that it doesn't end my life here," Griner said.
The judge, Anna Sotnikova, before going to deliberate, said the court will reconvene at 17:45 p.m. local time (which is 10:45 a.m. ET) today, when a verdict will be announced.