WNBA star Brittney Griner was sentenced Thursday to 9 years in a Russian prison after being convicted of drug charges by a Moscow court.
Griner pleaded guilty last month in a lengthy trial that has underscored strained relations between the United States and Russia since the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Prosecutors asked for a sentence of 9 1/2 years after closing arguments on Thursday. In a final plea for leniency, an emotional Griner apologized and repeated that she never intended to break any Russian law but had made “an honest mistake”.
A few hours later, judge Anna Sotnikova returned to announce that she had been found guilty of drug possession and smuggling. Griner, 31, will also have to pay a fine of 1 million rubles ($16,590), but can appeal the verdict.
Attention will now turn to the possibility of a prisoner exchange between Washington and Moscow. U.S. officials do not expect quick movement in the effort to free Griner, but will continue to press the issue, a U.S. official told NBC News.
“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is yet another reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is unjustly detaining Brittney,” President Joe Biden said in a statement shortly after the announced the verdict.
“It is unacceptable, and I am calling on Russia to release him immediately so he can be with his wife, loved ones, friends and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue all possible avenues to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
Griner’s legal team said they were “very disappointed,” in a statement to reporters outside court, adding that they were “very surprised by the verdict.”
“The court completely ignored all the evidence of the defense and, most importantly, the guilty plea,” his lawyers said in a separate statement posted on the Telegram messaging app.
They added that they will file an appeal.
“While we knew it was never the legal process that would bring our friend home, today’s verdict is a milestone in the 168-day nightmare that our sister, BG, is enduring,” the franchise said in a statement. the WNBA in a statement.
“We remain heartbroken for her, as we have been every day for nearly six months. We remain grateful and confident in the officials who work every day to return her to her family and to us.”
Griner was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February; Russian authorities said they found vaporizer cans containing cannabis oil in the luggage.
Grinner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, admitted that the jars were his. He said he brought them to Russia unintentionally after packing his luggage in a hurry.
The Kremlin has been accused of using Griner as a political pawn, while the Biden administration has come under increasing pressure from his family and teammates to secure his release.
The U.S. 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 two sources familiar with the matter
The press secretary of the White House, Karine Jean-Pierre he told reporters On Monday, Russia responded in “bad faith” to the US government’s offer with one of its own. “We don’t see it as a serious counteroffer,” he said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was talking with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, last week — the highest-level diplomatic engagement between the two countries since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February — to urge the Kremlin to accept the US offer.
The Russians answered urging the United States to refrain from speculation and to seek “quiet diplomacy.”
In a statement after the sentencing Thursday, Blinken said it “compounds the injustice of his illegal detention.”
“This step underscores our significant concerns with the Russian legal system and the Russian government’s use of unlawful detentions to advance its own agenda, using people as political pawns,” he added.
In May, the State Department reclassified Griner as “detained in error” and transferred oversight of her case to its presidential envoy for hostage affairs. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has denied that Griner is being held hostage.
Biden spoke with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, last month. He also sent a letter directly to Griner after she sent him a handwritten note asking for help in freeing her.
On Thursday, Griner was led into a cage inside the courtroom in handcuffs, wearing a gray shirt. Before proceedings began, she showed a photo of her teammates from the Russian club where she played in the WNBA offseason.
His lawyer, Maria Blagovolina, called the prosecution’s requests for a strict sentence “nonsense”. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years.
His defense team questioned some of the expert analysis used in the case and said Griner did not have adequate access to an interpreter during his arrest. They also pointed to Griner’s many athletic accomplishments, including in Russia, where the 6-foot-9 Houston native plays for Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company Ekaterinburg.
His lawyers reiterated that Griner has only used cannabis for medical purposes and has never used it in Russia. They asked that Griner be acquitted or receive the most lenient sentence possible.
As Griner took to the court, his voice shook as he apologized to his fans, family and teammates for any embarrassment or harm he may have caused them. He called the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where he played, his second home.
“I never meant to hurt anybody,” he said. “I never wanted to endanger the Russian population. I never wanted to break any laws here.”