WNBA star, Brittney Griner was sentenced to 9 years in Russian prison Thursday, August 4, after being convicted on drug charges by a Moscow court.
Griner pleaded guilty last month after a lengthy trial that highlighted the strained relationship between the US and Russia since the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
After closing arguments on Thursday, prosecutors requested a sentence of 9 1/2 years. In a final request for leniency, an emotional Griner apologized and repeated that she had never intended to break any Russian laws, but that she had made “an honest mistake.”
Only hours later, Judge Anna Sotnikova returned to announce her conviction for drug possession and smuggling. Griner, 31, will also have to pay a fine of 1 million rubles ($16,590), but he has the right to appeal the decision.
The focus will now shift to the possibility of a prisoner swap between Washington and Moscow. According to NBC News, US officials do not expect rapid progress in their efforts to free Griner, but they will continue to press the issue.
“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,” President Joe Biden said in a statement issued shortly after the verdict was announced.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
In a statement to reporters outside the courthouse, Griner’s legal team said she was “very disappointed,” and they were “very surprised by the verdict.”
“The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense, and most importantly, the guilty plea,” her lawyers said in a separate statement sent via Telegram.
They also stated that they intend to file an appeal.
And Griner’s WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, expressed optimism that the Biden Administration will secure the basketball star’s freedom.
“While we knew it was never the legal process that was going to bring our friend home, today’s verdict is a sobering milestone in the 168-day nightmare being endured by our sister, BG,” the WNBA franchise said in a statement.
“We remain heartbroken for her, as we have every day for nearly six months. We remain grateful to and confident in the public servants working every day to return her to her family and us.”
Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after Russian authorities discovered vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, admitted ownership of the canisters. She claimed she unintentionally transported them to Russia while packing her luggage in a hurry.
The Kremlin has been accused of using Griner as a political pawn, while her family and teammates have been putting pressure on the Biden administration to secure her release.
According to two sources familiar with the matter, the US government has proposed that Moscow release Griner and another American, Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence for espionage, in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
According to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre to reporters on Monday, Russia responded to the US government’s offer with one of its own in “bad faith.” “We don’t see it as a serious counteroffer,” she said.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, last week the highest level of diplomatic engagement between the two countries since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, urged the Kremlin to accept the US offer.
The Russians responded by urging the US to avoid speculation and instead pursue “quiet diplomacy.”
Blinken said in a statement following the sentencing on Thursday that it “compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention.”
“This step puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns,” he added.
The State Department reclassified Griner as “wrongfully detained” in May and delegated oversight of her case to its presidential envoy for hostage affairs. Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, has denied that Griner is being held as a hostage.
Last month, Biden spoke with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner. He also wrote a letter to Griner after she sent him a handwritten note pleading for his assistance in getting her released.
A growing chorus of voices has urged Washington to do more to secure Griner’s release nearly five months after she was arrested on drug charges.
Griner was led into a cage inside the courtroom wearing handcuffs and a gray shirt on Thursday. She displayed a photo of her teammates from the Russian club she played for during the WNBA offseason before the proceedings began.
Prosecutors’ requests for a harsh sentence, according to her lawyer Maria Blagovolina, are “nonsense.” The charges carry a maximum sentence of ten years in prison.
Her defense team questioned some of the expert analyses used in the case and claimed Griner was not given adequate interpreter access during her arrest. They also emphasized Griner’s numerous athletic accomplishments, including her time playing in Russia with Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company Ekaterinburg.
Griner’s lawyers reiterated that she has only used cannabis for medical purposes and has never used it in Russia. They asked that Griner be acquitted or sentenced as lightly as possible.
As Griner addressed the court she apologized to her fans, family, and teammates for any embarrassment or damage she may have caused them. She called the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where she played, her second home.
“I never meant to hurt anybody,” she said. “I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population. I never meant to break any laws here.