US basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted Thursday in Russia of drug possession and smuggling and was sentenced to 9 years behind bars in a politically charged case that would result in a high-stakes prisoner alternate between Washington and Moscow.
The 31-year-old Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and a eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, listened with a clean expression as an interpreter translated the decision by Judge Anna Sotnikova, however her legal professionals mentioned later she was “very upset.” Griner additionally was fined 1 million rubles (about USD 16,700).
US President Joe Biden denounced as “unacceptable” the decision and sentence, which got here amid hovering 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 mentioned, including that he would proceed to work to convey dwelling Griner and Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia on an espionage conviction.
Outside courtroom, the U.S. Embassy’s cost d’affaires Elizabeth Rood referred to as the result “a miscarriage of justice.” Griner, acknowledged as one of many best gamers in WNBA historical past, has been detained since Feb. 17 after police mentioned they discovered vape cartridges containing hashish oil in her baggage upon touchdown at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. She was returning to Russia, the place she has competed since 2014.
As she was led out of courtroom, Griner mentioned: “I love my family.” The nine-year sentence was near the utmost of 10 years that Griner had confronted beneath the fees. Most Russians possessing small portions of medicine get at most 5 years in jail, legal professionals mentioned.
Defense lawyer Maria Blagovolina informed 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 household, teammates and the Russian metropolis of Yekaterinburg, the place she performs within the WNBA low season, “for my mistake that I made and the embarrassment that I brought on them.” With her voice cracking, she added: “I hope in your ruling it does not end my life.” Griner has 10 days to attraction, and her legal professionals say they count on a listening to in Moscow regional courtroom subsequent week. Asked if Griner may ask for pardon from President Vladimir Putin, Blagovolina mentioned they might contemplate each chance, however the legal professionals mentioned they weren’t a part of any discussions a few prisoner swap.
Griner’s agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas mentioned 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 added that she supported Biden’s efforts “to get a deal done.” A conviction is often wanted earlier than arranging a prisoner alternate and likewise permits Griner to use for a pardon. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov mentioned final month the “necessary judicial procedures” should be accomplished earlier than different steps could be taken.
The disclosure in July that the U.S. authorities was looking for a prisoner swap involving Griner mirrored the rising strain on the Biden administration to do extra to convey her dwelling. The U.S. State Department had earlier declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a cost that Russia has sharply rejected.
When she took the stand July 7, Griner mentioned: “I would like to plead guilty on the charges against me. But I had no intention of breaking any Russian law.” She added that she introduced the vape canisters into Russia as a result of she had packed in haste for her flight.
Griner additionally described a complicated scene whereas being held on the airport, saying an interpreter offered by authorities translated solely a fraction of what was being mentioned to her and that officers informed her to signal paperwork with out explaining what they have been. She additionally mentioned she was not knowledgeable of her rights.
Her legal professionals launched proof that Griner was utilizing the medicinal hashish for power ache and accidents sustained throughout her profession and included a letter from her physician. Griner testified she was conscious hashish oil was outlawed in Russia and had not meant to interrupt the regulation or “plan to smuggle anything into Russia.” Griner’s case and her practically six months behind bars have raised sturdy criticism amongst her supporters within the United States, together with her spouse, Cherelle, that Biden was not doing sufficient to win her freedom.
Griner despatched a private attraction to Biden, and greater than 1,100 Black feminine leaders urged the administration to “make a deal to get Brittney back home swiftly and safely and to meet with Brittney’s wife Cherelle immediately.” Biden later referred to as Cherelle Griner “to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible,” the White House mentioned July 6.
Cherelle Griner, who additionally spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris, later mentioned she was “grateful to the both of them for the time they spent with me and for the commitment they expressed to getting BG home,” utilizing her spouse’s initials.
On July 27, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned Washington has supplied a deal to Russia geared toward bringing dwelling Griner and Whelan in a pointy reversal of earlier coverage. Details of the proposal weren’t introduced, although an individual acquainted with the matter mentioned the U.S. has supplied to commerce convicted Russian arms supplier Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner. The particular person insisted on anonymity to debate an ongoing investigation.
Russian media have speculated repeatedly that Griner could possibly be swapped for Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” who’s serving a 25-year sentence within the U.S. after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. residents and offering support to a terrorist group. Russia has agitated for Bout’s launch for years.
The severity of Griner’s sentence may give Russia leverage in a swap by growing strain on Washington to barter her launch. “I think that the harsher the sentence, the more pressure there will be on the Biden administration to make a deal, and obviously they like leveraging that pressure,” Tom Firestone, a lawyer who previously served because the resident authorized adviser on the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, mentioned of the Russians earlier than the sentence was imposed.
Even with U.S.-Russia relations at a low level, the 2 nations managed to rearrange a swap in April of Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine detained in Russia, for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot and convicted drug trafficker serving a 20-year jail sentence in Connecticut.
Griner’s detention was made public solely after Russian troops moved into Ukraine, as relations between Russia and the United States hit new lows after Washington led the West in bringing sanctions towards Moscow. Her plight has been highlighted by supporters at dwelling, together with prime athletes, particularly after little information emerged about her preliminary weeks of detention in Russia, the place she had restricted entry to U.S. diplomats. It was solely in May that the State Department designated her as wrongfully detained, shifting her case beneath its Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, successfully the federal government’s chief hostage negotiator.
At the ESPY Awards final month, soccer star Megan Rapinoe referred to Griner as “a political prisoner,” and tennis nice Billie Jean King mentioned, “First, bring BG home. Gotta do that.” NBA Finals MVP Stephen Curry wore Griner’s jersey beneath his observe go well with on the awards present and urged “the entire global sports community to continue to stay energized on her behalf.” Griner, a 6-foot-9 middle, has 12 of the 15 common season dunks in WNBA historical past and set the single-year report for blocks with 129 in 2014. She led the league in scoring twice. She was a two-time Associated Press faculty basketball participant of the 12 months and led Baylor to a 40-0 season and the 2012 NCAA title. She was the No. 1 decide by Phoenix within the 2013 draft.
Her teammates watched Thursday’s trial on tv in a locker room in Connecticut, the place they have been to play a night recreation. The recreation was to be preceded by a 42-second second of silence — 42 is Griner’s quantity.
The commissioners of the WNBA and NBA referred to as the decision “unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected.”