“Today, US citizen Brittney Griner was sentenced to a prison term that is yet another reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney. This is unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with his wife, loved ones, friends and teammates,” Biden said in a statement.
He continued: “My administration will continue to work tirelessly and explore every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”
The Russian court said Griner deliberately committed the crime and sentenced her to nine years in prison and a fine of 1 million rubles, or about $16,400. Griner was arrested with less than 1 gram of cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on February 17.
Griner pleaded guilty and said it was “an honest mistake” due to packing in a hurry.
US officials say she was wrongfully detained and have called for her release amid growing fears she will be used as a political pawn amid rising tensions between the Kremlin and the Biden administration after Russia’s war against Ukraine.
The sentencing comes after CNN reported that the United States made a “substantial offer” to Russia of a proposed prisoner exchange for Griner and Whelan. Whelan, a US citizen and former Marine, was arrested in Moscow for espionage in 2018 and later sentenced to 16 years in prison in a trial US officials have denounced as unfair.
Griner’s lawyers, Maria Blagovolina and Alexander Boykov, said in a written statement after the verdict was announced that the court ignored all the evidence they presented and that they would appeal the decision.
In her closing arguments Thursday, Blagovolina argued that Griner had never used marijuana in Russia and never intended to.
US officials told CNN they believe the status of efforts to get Griner out of Russia remains the same at this time. The United States made what the Biden administration described as a “substantial offer” to trade Griner and Paul Whelan for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States. . The administration will continue to try to push those negotiations forward and pressure Russia to accept the offer, officials said Thursday.
But, as one official pointed out, the process is likely to continue to take some time and it is ultimately up to Russia to decide how quickly it wants to move.
“The ball is in Russia’s court” right now, an official said.
Last month, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner. Biden also wrote a letter to Griner after sending a handwritten letter to the president.
This story has been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Evan Perez and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.