Brittney Griner will have to serve nine years in Russian prison on drug possession and smuggling charges, a Russian judge ruled Thursday, making the All-Star WNBA basketball player’s only option for freedom a prisoner swap by the U.S. government.
The judge’s decision comes almost six months after Griner, a center for the Phoenix Mercury, was arrested at Sheremetyevo International Airport near Moscow. Griner flew into Russia to play during the American league’s off-season and was stopped after Russian customs discovered less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage.
Griner sat in a cell, as is custom for people on trial in Russia, as the judge read the sentence. She appeared stoic, and declined to speak after the sentencing when asked by the judge.
In addition to prison time, Griner was fined 1 million rubles, more than US$16,000.
Griner’s trial just outside of Moscow came to a close about an hour before the judge’s ruling. At the end of the monthlong trial, Russian prosecutors asked the Russian judge to sentence Griner to nine and a half years in prison, six months shy of the maximum penalty.
At the start of the trial last month, Griner pleaded guilty to the drug charges. She and her defense team insisted the drugs were brought to Russia by mistake because she hastily packed before her trip. Last month, her attorneys showed the courtroom a prescription for the marijuana from a physician based in Griner’s home state of Arizona.
On Thursday, the basketball player apologized again for bringing the cannabis oil into the country.
“I never meant to hurt anybody, I never meant to put in jeopardy the Russian population, I never meant to break any laws here,” Griner said in court. “I made an honest mistake and I hope that in your ruling that it doesn't end my life here. I know everybody keeps talking about political pawn and politics, but I hope that that is far from this courtroom.”
U.S. President Joe Biden called for Griner’s immediate release.
“It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates,” Biden said in a statement shortly after the sentencing. “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
The U.S. government tried to get Griner home before the end of her trial. Last month, Russia reported the U.S. offered to exchange convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for both Griner and ex-Marine Whelan, who’s been incarcerated in Russia since 2020. Bout is currently 11 years into a 25-year prison sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to people who planned to kill Americans.
Earlier this week, CNN reported via multiple undisclosed sources that Russian spy agency FSB asked the U.S. for both Bout and Vadim Krasikov, a Russian colonel sentenced to life in prison in Germany for murdering a Chechen fighter there in 2019, in exchange for Griner and Whelan.
Griner’s incarceration has been a major point of discussion about everything from U.S.-Russian relations to the treatment of women athletes here in the U.S. Her arrest came just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, a military operation that the U.S. and its allies harshly opposed even before it began. Many experts believe Griner’s arrest was a strategic move by the Russian government to maintain some leverage in the months following its attack on Ukraine.
Griner’s situation also highlighted the compensation for women players, who are paid a fraction of what their male counterparts make and often have to play in foreign countries to supplement their income.
In the early months of her incarceration, radio silence about her arrest and potential efforts to get her back home had fans worried about Griner’s well-being. The fact that Griner, a 6-foot-7, Black, and openly gay basketball player found herself imprisoned in a country known for its hostility toward both Black people and the LGBTQ community led many to believe corruption would pervade her trial.
But as the trial approached, celebrities, teammates, and athletes began speaking out on the player’s behalf. Griner herself penned a letter to Biden last month asking him, “Don’t forget about me.”
Not everyone was in support of Griner. Earlier this week, former President Donald Trump criticized the efforts to exchange a Russian criminal for the basketball player, saying Griner was “spoiled” and deserved to be in prison.
“She knew you don’t go in there loaded up with drugs,” Trump said. “She got caught. And now, we’re supposed to get her out.”
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