A Russian court has found US basketball star Brittney Griner guilty of drug smuggling, and sentenced her to nine years in prison in a case that has reached the highest levels of United States-Russia diplomacy.
The court “found the defendant guilty” of smuggling and possessing “a significant amount of narcotics”, judge Anna Sotnikova told a court in the town of Khimki just outside Moscow. The player was also fined one million rubles ($16,300).
US President Joe Biden was quick to condemn the verdict, calling it “unacceptable” and renewing his calls for the player’s release.
“My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible,” he said, referring to another American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.
Sotnikova had said on Thursday that Griner committed the crime “deliberately”. But Griner had testified during the trial it was a mistake.
Since her arrest, Griner’s relatives, teammates and supporters have been calling on the US government to put its full weight behind the case to push for her release.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on February 17 when she entered the country with vape canisters containing cannabis oil.
She called it an “honest mistake” while speaking in the court on Thursday before sentencing.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never intended to break Russian law,” Griner said through a translator while standing in the metal cage reserved for defendants in Russian courtrooms. She apologised to her family, teammates, and her spouse.
Her detention came one week before Russia invaded Ukraine amid a spike in tensions between Moscow and Washington.
Griner had pleaded guilty when her trial began in July, and said then she did not bring the canisters into Russia intentionally. Cannabis is illegal in Russia for both medicinal and recreational purposes.
Griner’s lawyers said they plan on appealing the verdict, accusing the court of ignoring the evidence presented by the defence.
“Taking into account the amount of the substance – not to mention the defects of the expertise – and the plea, the verdict is absolutely unreasonable,” her defence team said in a statement.
Attention will now turn to the high-stakes possibility of a prisoner swap.
In July, the US Department of State designated Griner as “wrongfully detained”, moving her case under the supervision of its special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief hostage negotiator.
Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Whelan would go free.
The Lavrov-Blinken call marked the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The direct outreach over Griner was at odds with US efforts to isolate the Kremlin.
Blinken said on Thursday the sentence against Griner “further compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention”, promising to continue to push to bring her “home”.
“Russia, and any country engaging in wrongful detention, represents a threat to the safety of everyone traveling, working, and living abroad,” he said in a statement.
Griner told the Russian court on Thursday she hoped that politics would not influence the case.
“I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that is far from this courtroom,” Griner said before the judge’s ruling.
Griner, 31, had flown to Russia to join her team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, for the playoffs after spending time at home in the US. She has played in the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League during the WNBA off-season.
In her testimony last week, Griner expressed puzzlement as to how the vape cartridges had ended up in her luggage.
“I still don’t understand to this day how they ended up in my bag,” she told the court on July 27. “If I had to guess on how they ended up in my bags, I was in a rush packing.”
The Russian court’s conviction and sentencing of U.S. citizen Brittney Griner spotlights our concerns with the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions. I am committed to ensuring we do everything we can to bring home Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan as soon as possible.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) August 4, 2022
US lawmakers, activists and athletes denounced the sentence against Griner on Thursday, stressing that it was about the geopolitical rivalry between Washington and Moscow, not the drug charges.
US Congressman Ruben Gallego, who represents parts of Phoenix, Arizona where Griner played before leaving for Russia, called the sentence “unsurprising as it is unjust”.
“It’s clear that Russia sees Ms. Griner as a political pawn in their war in Ukraine,” Gallego wrote on Twitter. “I’ll keep working with the Biden administration’s efforts to bring her home.”
Democratic Congressman Mike Quigley also called the sentence a “miscarriage of justice” that makes it “clearer than ever that Brittney Griner is being wrongfully detained purely because of her nationality”.
For his part, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, raised concerns that the sentence may be political.
“Nine years for bringing two vaping cartridges into Russia! That seems like a sentence not tailored to the gravity of the offense but designed to increase her value as a bargaining chip for Russians held by the United States,” he wrote on Twitter.