KHIMKI, Russia (AP) — American basketball star Brittney Griner was convicted Thursday in Russia of drug possession and trafficking, and was sentenced to nine years in prison in a politically charged case that could ultimately lead to a high-stakes prisoner exchange between Washington and Moscow.
Griner, 31, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, listened with a blank expression as an interpreter translated Judge Anna Sotnikova’s verdict. Griner was also fined 1 million rubles (about $16,700).
US President Joe Biden has denounced as “unacceptable” the verdict and sentence, which came amid growing tensions between the United States 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 back Griner and Paul Whelan, an American. imprisoned in Russia on a conviction for espionage.
Outside of court, U.S. Embassy Chargé d’Affaires Elizabeth Rood called the result “a miscarriage of justice.”
Griner, recognized as one of the greatest players in WNBA history, has been detained since February 17 after police said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage when she was landing at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. 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 10 years Griner had faced on the charges. Most Russians with small amounts of drugs face a maximum of five years in prison, lawyers have said.
Defense attorney Maria Blagovolina told reporters later that Griner was “very upset, very stressed. She can barely speak. It’s a tough time for her.”
Before the unusually quick verdict was delivered, an emotional Griner apologized to her family, teammates and the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where she plays during the WNBA offseason, “for my mistake that I have committed and the embarrassment I have caused them”.
Voice cracking, she added, “I hope your decision doesn’t end my life.”
Under Russian law, Griner has 10 days to appeal, and his lawyers say they expect a hearing in Moscow Regional Court next week. When asked if Griner could ask President Vladimir Putin for forgiveness, Blagovolina said they would consider all possibilities, but the lawyers said they were not involved in any discussion about a prisoner exchange.
A conviction is usually a prerequisite for arranging a prisoner exchange and also allows Griner to seek a presidential pardon. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said last month that “necessary legal proceedings” had to be completed before any further action could be taken.
The revelation in July that the US government was seeking a prisoner swap involving Griner reflected growing pressure on the Biden administration to do more to bring her home. The US State Department previously said Griner was “wrongfully detained” – a charge Russia has firmly denied.
When speaking on July 7, Griner said, “I would like to plead guilty to the charges against me. But I had no intention of breaking Russian law. She added that she brought the vape cartridges to Russia because she had packed her bags in a hurry for her flight.
In later testimony, Griner described a puzzling scene while she was detained at the airport, saying an interpreter provided by authorities only translated a fraction of what she was told and that authorities told to sign documents, but “nobody explained anything”. tome.” She also said she was not informed of her rights.
His lawyers presented evidence that Griner used medical cannabis for chronic pain and injuries sustained during his career and included a letter from his doctor. Griner testified that she knew cannabis oil was banned in Russia and that she had no intention of breaking the law or “planning to smuggle anything into Russia.”
Trials in Russia continue even after admissions of guilt, and there has been speculation that his actions were an attempt to advance the legal process in hopes of a possible prisoner exchange.
Griner’s case and his nearly six months behind bars has sparked strong criticism among his supporters in the United States, including his wife, Cherelle, that Biden was not doing enough to win his freedom.
Griner sent a personal appeal to Biden, and more than 1,100 black women leaders urged the administration to “come to an agreement to get Brittney home quickly and safely and to meet with Brittney’s wife, Cherelle, immediately.” Biden then called Cherelle Griner “to reassure her that he is working to secure Brittney’s release as soon as possible,” the White House said on July 6.
Cherelle Griner, who also spoke with Vice President Kamala Harris, later said she was “grateful to both of them for the time they spent with me and for the commitment they have voiced to bring BG home,” using his wife’s initials.
On July 27, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington had offered Russia a deal to bring Griner and Whelan back in a sharp reversal of previous policy. Details of the proposal have not been announced, although a person familiar with the matter said the United States had offered to trade convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for Whelan and Griner. The person insisted on anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.
Russian media have repeatedly speculated that Griner could be swapped for Bout, nicknamed “the Merchant of Death”, who is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States after being convicted of conspiracy to kill American citizens and aiding a terrorist organization. Russia has been agitating for years for Bout’s release.
His detention was only made public after Russian troops entered Ukraine, as relations between Russia and the United States reached new lows after Washington led the West to impose sanctions against Moscow.
Griner’s plight has been underscored by her supporters at home, including top athletes, particularly after little news emerged of her first weeks in custody in Russia, where she had limited access to officials. United States Embassy. It wasn’t until May that the State Department named her as wrongfully detained, placing her case under the supervision of its presidential special envoy for hostage affairs, effectively the government’s chief negotiator for the hostages.
At the ESPY Awards last month, soccer player Megan Rapinoe called Griner a “political prisoner” and tennis great Billie Jean King said, “First, bring BG home. Gotta do that.
NBA Finals MVP Stephan Curry wore Griner’s jersey under his tracksuit at the awards show and urged “the entire global sports community to continue to stay energized on his behalf.” She is one of us, the team of athletes in this room tonight and all over the world. A team that has nothing to do with politics or world conflicts.
Griner, a 6-foot-9 center, has 12 of 15 regular-season dunks in WNBA history and set the single-year record for blocks with 129 in 2014. She led the league in scoring twice. She was a two-time Associated Press College Basketball Player of the Year and led Baylor to a 40-0 season and the 2012 NCAA title. She was Phoenix’s first pick in the 2013 draft.
WNBA and NBA commissioners called the outcome of the lawsuit “unwarranted and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained. … We hope we are nearing the end of this process to finally bring BG back.” in the USA.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed.
Jim Heintz, Associated Press