U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted Thursday in Russia of drug possession and smuggling and was sentenced to nine years behind bars in a politically charged case that could lead to a high-stakes prisoner exchange between Washington and Moscow.
The 31-year-old Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and an eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, listened blankly as an interpreter translated the verdict by Judge Anna Sotnikova. Still, her lawyers said later she was “very upset.” Griner also was fined 1 million rubles (about $16,700).
U.S. President Joe Biden denounced as “unacceptable” the verdict and sentence, which came amid soaring tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine.
“I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends and teammates,” Biden said, adding that he would continue to work to bring Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia, on an espionage conviction.
Outside court, the U.S. Embassy’s charge d’affaires Elizabeth Rood called the outcome “a miscarriage of justice.”
Griner, recognized as one of the greatest players in WNBA history, has been detained since Feb. 17 after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage upon landing at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. She was returning to Russia, where she has competed since 2014.
As she was led out of court, Griner said: “I love my family.”
The nine-year sentence was close to the maximum of 10 years that Griner had faced under the charges. Lawyers say that most Russians possessing small quantities of drugs get at most five years in prison.
Defence attorney Maria Blagovolina told reporters later that Griner was “very upset, very stressed. She can hardly talk. It’s a difficult time for her.”
Before the unusually swift verdict was reached, an emotional Griner apologized to her family, teammates and the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where she plays in the WNBA offseason, “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.”
With her voice cracking, she added: “I hope your ruling it does not end my life.”
Griner has 10 days to appeal, and her lawyers say they expect a hearing in Moscow regional court next week. Asked if Griner could ask for a pardon from President Vladimir Putin, Blagovolina said they would consider every possibility. Still, the lawyers said they were not part of any discussions about a prisoner swap.
Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas said the sentence “was severe by Russian legal standards and goes to prove what we have known all along, that Brittney is being used as a political pawn.” She said she supported Biden’s efforts “to get a deal done.”
A conviction is usually needed before arranging a prisoner exchange and allows Griner to apply for a pardon. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last month the “necessary judicial procedures” must be completed before other steps can be taken.
The disclosure in July that the U.S. government was seeking a prisoner swap involving Griner reflected the growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring her home. The U.S. State Department had earlier declared Griner “wrongfully detained” — a charge Russia has sharply rejected.